MSPs Need to Prep Now for an SDN Transition

By Mike Vizard
software-defined networking

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.

Further driving the adoption of SDN and related technologies will be the rise of internet of things (IoT) deployments. Serro Solutions, for example, is investing in SDN and NFV platforms as a means to network large number of distributed IoT gateways and endpoints.

Nitin Serro, the company's CEO, said that many of those deployments would not be feasible to manage without relying on SDN technologies. The challenge that providers of these solutions will discover, he added, is that many of these IoT solutions will require access to low-latency network services pushed out to the edge of the network—requirements that can't be met by relying on legacy network architectures.

"A lot of people are starting to refer to this as fog computing," said Serro. Regardless of the terminology, he said that managing services at the edge of the network requires a software-defined approach.

Reliance on Managed Services Is Increasing

As next-generation IT environments become more complex, more organizations are going to wind up relying on external providers for networking expertise, said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT Research. "Reliance on managed services is definitely increasing," he added.

The challenge many solution providers will face, however, is that the type of companies that will provide those managed services is expanding. For instance, Telco Systems historically built carrier-grade networking hardware. But with the rise of SDNs, Raanan Tzemach, vice president of product marketing and professional services for Telco Systems, said the company is morphing into a software company that also provides managed services.

Tzemach said that rather than delivering a bunch of isolated network services, Telco Systems is building what is known as virtual customer premise equipment (vCPE), a virtual instance of an open networking platform around which it has built its own management and orchestration (MANO) engine. Via that vCPE, he envisions making a broach range of services available.

"Internally, the hard part for us is turning a hardware company into a software company," Tzemach said.

Just about every solution provider that attempts to become an MSP that depends on some form of SDN service is likely to experience similar issues. Whether these MSPs decide to build the service from the ground up or resell a set of managed services provided by, for example, a carrier or cloud service provider, the amount of physical network hardware being consumed should decline over the next several years.

That transition obviously won't occur overnight. But most solution providers that specialize in network hardware can already see the writing on the wall.


This article was originally published on 2017-04-06