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Technological innovations are often one of those proverbial achievements that cut both ways: Tech disruption usually benefits one party at the expense of another. The rise of software-defined networking (SDN), alongside network virtualization, represents one of those times when managed service providers (MSPs) stand to gain more than they might lose.

In theory, SDNs will make networks simpler to manage. That obviously promises to make it simpler for internal IT organizations to manage networks on their own, needing little or no additional help from an external MSP. However, transitioning to SDNs requires a lot of additional skills that most internal IT organizations don’t have.

SDN essentially turns a network into a programmable entity that enables organizations to respond faster to changing requirements. The challenge is that most network administrators don’t have much in the way of programming skills.

In contrast, MSPs, as part of managing IT as a business, have more of an incentive to make sure their staffs have the skills required to succeed. Because SDNs offer a potential way to deliver more services at scale across a broader number of customers, MSPs stand to benefit greatly as SDN technologies mature.

Unfortunately, the rate at which SDNs are maturing is relatively slow. Just about every networking vendor today is making available some form of a software-defined networking. There are also several open-source options that solution providers can download for free. But there’s not much in the way of SDN interoperability between any of them just yet.

More challenging still is the fact that SDNs are only one part of the next-generation networking equation. SDNs need to be deployed in tandem with network virtualization overlays that provide a layer of abstraction above the physical routers and switches.

An SDN provides the control plane need to manage a pool of virtual networks. At the same time, many of the networking and security appliances that populate those physical networks are being transformed into virtual entities known as virtual network functions (VNFs). But while many flavors of VNFs exist today, there’s not much available in terms of interoperability between them. In fact, the management and orchestration layer in the form of Network Function Virtualization platforms needed to manage those VNFs are still in their infancy.

Management and Interoperability Issues

Despite those challenges, however, it’s only a matter of time before management and interoperability issues are achieved. In fact, as IT organizations increasingly adopt multiple forms of cloud computing, the only way to centralize the management of those clouds will be across an SDN.

“SDN and other next-generation networking technologies have been talked about for quite a while,” said Grant Sainsbury, senior vice president of services at Dimension Data, a global IT solutions provider. “Despite of all the challenges, we’re still seeing increased adoption.”

Driving that adoption, Sainsbury said, is the need to orchestrate hybrid IT environments. In fact, a new survey of 1,500 IT decision-makers conducted by 451 Research on behalf of Dimension Data, suggests hybrid IT architectures will soon be a standard approach across most enterprise IT organizations.