SDN: So near and yet so far

NEW YORK – Software-defined networking, in the words of industry analyst Eric Hanselman, is “the bright shining star” in infrastructure that is dazzling IT.

It promises to essentially make virtualizing networks automated, allowing IT managers to expand and contract capacity as needed for applications.


However, in some ways SDN like any star in the heavens: Near and yet so far.

As Interop New York wrapped up one could see the light of SDN trying to pierce those attending, although some of the biggest proponents of the technology didn’t have stands at trade show – even in the part of the exhibition floor dedicated to SDN. This at a show whose focus is networking. Missing booths included IBM Corp., Juniper Networks and Brocade Communications Systems.

Officials from these companies were there — IBM gave a keynote speech, Brocade had an official on an SDN panel on the open source OpenDaylight project, for example. But it was also a sign that despite regular announcements from vendors of products with SDN-like capabilities, it is still, as Hanselman acknowledged in an interview, a nascent technology.

I spoke to Hanselman, who is chief analyst at 451 Research, after he hosted an SDN roundtable with some early vendors and an executive from Facebook, which uses the technology. He admitted that 12 months from now SDN still won’t be mainstream.

“Transitions in technology are hard,” he said. “Organizations build process, policies, procedures based on (existing) technology. In another year we’ll be at appoint where there will be many other deployments, but it’s still going to be a relatively small chunk of the total market. Two years out, we’ll start to get to the equipment refresh cycle that most orgs need to get to these capabilities, and a comfort level.”

And, he added, automating servers is simple – if things go sideways you only blow up a server. But there’s always been a reluctance to tamper with the network for obvious reasons – you’re touching interconnections. SDN will offer protections to make the transition less risky, he said, but it’s still a transition.

SDN broadly speaking will make better use of the interconnection resources by leveraging flexibility in networking interconnects, he said. The most common way suggested is by using a virtual controller to control physical and virtual switches and routers. Virtualization can do that today with VLANs, and that may be enough for small companies, Hanselman said. But it may not do for those with larger environments and want to do things like move large databases around without a lot of manual work.

Not that it can’t be done today through scripts. “In the past we’ve tried to build environments to guide traffic,” Hanselman said. “What SDN in its various forms does is give more low level control that’s much more easy to program. You’ve always been able to do a lot of the pieces that SDN does, it’s just it was really clunky and potentially problematic.”

Initially, because it appeals to organizations with large workloads, those doing leading edge work with SDN are service or content providers. But Hanselman says some enterprises have started to use it as well.

“We’re working with a large insurer who is using SDN capabilities to change what their storage infrastructure looks like. So when they run their daily backups and they need a certain amount of traffic density to ensure the job is complete overnight, they can move to higher capacity connections.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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