SDN Solution Provider: A Role Apt to Evolve Over Time

By Michael Vizard
SDN solution provider

Although interest in software-defined networking is on the rise inside and outside the enterprise, and SDN vendors are jockeying for position in this emerging market, the actual deployment of the technology in production environments is going to be a more evolutionary than revolutionary process.

That doesn't mean that solution providers should ignore SDNs. Rather, it means that network solution providers need to recognize that making this transition will require them to patiently start planning their SDN strategies.

"Patience" will indeed be the operative word for SDN solution providers.

Deploying and then acquiring the skills needed to manage an SDN are not simple tasks. Even with all the networking expertise carriers have, the most aggressive adopters of SDNs among them are not expected to be in production until 2020.  AT&T, for example, says it expects to have 75 percent of its network software-defined by 2020.

Another case in point is Orange Business Services, the global systems integration (SI) arm of a carrier headquartered in France. The company is already working with clients deploying SDNs that will include white boxes deployed on-premise at the customer data center that will be remotely managed by the global SIs, said John Isch, director of the network and voice group at Orange Business Services in North America.

"We're building a global orchestration framework," Isch said. "At the edges of that network, we'll have white boxes that we manage to deliver services."

What Network Solution Providers Should Know About SDN

The main appeal of SDNs is that they promise to reduce the operational costs associated with manually managing networks. Network solution providers should note that SDNs are aimed at enabling IT organizations to become more responsive to rapidly changing business requirements at a time when IT deployments are scaling at an unprecedented rate.

In addition to cost savings, SDN's key benefits include improved network performance, increased productivity and increased security, according to a recent survey of 466 IT professionals conducted by QuinStreet Enterprise, which publishes Channel Insider. However, the QuinStreet study cited realizing cost savings, integration and interoperability, and security as the top concerns.

SDNs today require network administrators to learn how to program, which is a skill set most of them do not have. As a result, enthusiasm for SDNs in the networking community is mixed. Senior IT leaders recognize the need for SDNs, but rank-and-file network administrators have been slow to learn how to program.

There's no shortage of SDN vendors or products in the marketplace.

From the perspective of solution providers in the channel, the fact that Cisco currently leads in terms of network preference should not be surprising. But VMware, Citrix, Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are all strong contenders in the category, according to the QuinStreet study.

Network solution providers aiming to carve out a share of this market should take note of who will deploy SDNs.

"In a lot of cases, we're seeing new types of IT people deploying SDNs. They're from DevOps and CloudOps teams," said Wendy Cartee, vice president of product management and marketing for PLUMgrid, which recently unveiled an extension for connecting Docker container applications to the OpenStack cloud management framework. "It's not always your classic network hardware guys."

SDN Providers on the Acquisition Hunt

SDNs are also influencing multibillion-dollar IT industry mergers. At the recent EMC World 2016 conference, Dell CEO Michael Dell told EMC CEO Joe Tucci that one of the best things that EMC did was to acquire Nicira in 2014 and then fold it into its VMware subsidiary. Originally designed for carrier networks, the software Nicira developed is now a foundational component of VMware's software-defined data center strategy.

"One of the most remarkable acquisitions I've seen within EMC has been Nicera," said Dell. "What it allows you to do is simplify the hardware at the network layer. It allows you to put network functions in software."

Now known as VMware NSX software, Dell said it's equally important that there is currently an ecosystem of companies building additional products and services on top of NSX.

However, some contend that the shift to SDN will start with the wide-area network before working its way back into the data center.

"SD-WANs will be a $6 billion market," said John Vincenzo, chief marketing officer for Silver Peak Systems, a provider of SD-WAN gateways. "The opportunity to deliver managed services across those SD-WANs is definitely there."

In the not-too-distant future, just about everything will be defined by software. At the recent Citrix Synergy 2016 conference, Abhishek Chauhan, CTO for the company's cloud networking group, told attendees that SDNs herald the rise of always-on connectivity.

To prove that point, Chauhan cut the network cables through which a Microsoft Skype for Business video conference was being delivered. That session then automatically reconnected to a wireless network in a way that was seamless to the participants in the video conference.

The ultimate goal is to build software-defined data centers. But that can only really be achieved when the network through which software-defined servers and storage will be accessed becomes software-defined.

"There are a lot of pilots," said Chris Chute, an industry analyst with IDC. "There's definitely a sense of urgency."

Right now, those pilots span everything from carrier networks to the data center. In fact, it's conceivable that given the more limited scope of their projects, SDNs will show up in the data center before they are widely deployed by carriers.

The challenge and opportunity facing networking solution providers now is to use their expertise to first turn all those pilots into full-blown IT projects deployed in production environments and then craft a broad range of managed services that should be more cost-effective to deliver than ever before.

Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for more than 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWEEK, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.

This article was originally published on 2016-05-31