SDN Will Transform the Delivery of IT Services

By Michael Vizard
software-defined networks

When it comes to IT these days most organizations are trying to become more agile. The problem they face in attaining that agility is that while a virtual machine can be provisioned in minutes, it still takes weeks to provision the associated subnets and VLAN resources.

To solve that problem, IT vendors are pouring millions of dollars into the development of software-defined networks that will turn networking into a programmable resource that can be provisioned in a matter a minutes, much like a virtual machine.

However, the implications of software-defined networking (SDN) for solution providers go well beyond agility. SDN will change everything from how solution providers compete globally to the relationship they have with networking vendors.

There are essentially three major SDN camps. Network hardware vendors such as Cisco are investing in SDN software that leverages the proprietary ASICs that differentiate the company's network hardware. At the same time, providers of virtual machine software such as VMware are investing in SDN as part of larger strategy to create software-defined data centers. Finally, a significant portion of the networking industry is rallying around open-source projects such as OpenFlow and Project OpenDaylight as part of an effort to forever separate networking software from dependencies on the underlying network hardware.

Solution providers such as OneNeck IT Solutions are betting that continuing to be aligned with networking leader Cisco will give them an edge in terms of making the transition to SDN.

"As a longtime partner, we think the Cisco approach will give us the most market reach," said Eric Lehto, director of technology at OneNeck IT Solutions. "SDN will give IT a lot more business agility, but there's still a long way to go."

Others, however, expect SDN will require a more nuanced approach. Given the proliferation of SDN models, Chris Patterson, vice president of product management for NaviSite, a cloud service provider that is a unit of Time-Warner, said there will ultimately be a need to support multiple types of SDN.

"SDN moves us beyond the physical limitations of the network," Patterson said. "As hypervisors become a commodity, this will allow us to add value above the infrastructure layer."

Even vendors such as Hewlett-Packard that are big proponents of open-source technologies are hedging their bets. While HP avidly supports OpenFlow and Project OpenDaylight, it also just announced an alliance with VMware under which it is bundling VMware EVO:RAIL software from VMware with its servers to create a turnkey SDN platform. At the same time, HP just launched a Distributed Cloud Network (DCN) offering based on its OpenFlow-compatible routers, switches and controllers and wide-area network (WAN) gateways.

"Individual customers have unique requirements", said Jacob Rapp, global marketing leader for HP Networking. "Our approach will be to federate a lot of these environments over a WAN gateway."

Separating networking software from hardware using open-source software has major implications for the channel. Customers will be able to mix and match networking software and hardware as they see fit. In fact, Dell, for example, already supports multiple SDN implementations on its switches and just became a platinum sponsor of Project OpenDaylight.

When it comes to the channel, the open-source networking community needs to become a lot more proactive in terms of reaching out, said Neela Jacques, executive director for Project OpenDaylight within The Linux Foundation. "We need to do more training with channel partners," Jacques said. "And we have not begun to address things like market development funds [MDFs]."

For solution providers, open-source SDN could mean that the number of vendors they might need to support in the brave new world of SDN could be substantially higher. As costly as that may seem, however, SDN in general also brings more opportunity. As the network becomes programmable, so too does the application stack that runs above it. Solution providers should find it much easier to take advantage of application programming interfaces to deliver a much wider variety of managed services almost anywhere in the world.

For example, Sify Technologies Ltd., a provider of managed services in India, is now setting up shop in the United States to take advantage of that very opportunity. Sify Technologies Chairman Raju Vegesna said the rise of SDN allows the MSP to come to the U.S. under a new business model that no longer needs to be tied to a traditional time and materials approach to delivering IT services.

"The IT services world is changing," Vegesna said. "We're not a systems integrator. We're a services provider; so from that perspective, we have nothing to lose."

As is often the case with any major technology advances, SDN will cut both ways in the channel. They definitely will expand the service opportunities for solution providers willing to invest in acquiring the programming skills needed to manage them. At the same time, however, because SDN makes it possible to deliver those services globally, competition across the channel is clearly about to become fiercer than ever.

Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 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 2014-10-31