SDNs: Misunderstood or Too Nebulous to Succeed?

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

The Struggle to Manage the Complexity of Modern IT

It’s pretty common: A concept is easy to understand and seems to make great sense. What flies below the radar is the fact that actual execution is frightfully difficult, because of both the technology itself and the jostling behind the scenes as vendors look to make their approach predominant.

Such a situation exists in the world of software-defined networks (SDNs). The idea is compelling: By separating the intelligence that directs how data flows from the actual hardware that puts those commands into action, network operators introduce great flexibility and efficiency into the process.

The problem is that actually doing this involves a massive change, both from the technical and business perspectives. At InformationWeek, Sam Masud discussed the huge uncertainties still hanging over SDNs. Indeed, he points out that the industry hasn’t even agreed on a precise definition of SDN. Beyond that, how the concept will be coupled with network fabrics still is uncertain.

Vess Bakalov, the senior vice president and chief technology officer of SevOne, gets into some details on the complexity of SDNs at GigaOm. He points to several challenges. An initial challenge is that transitioning from the current architecture to SDNs is difficult from a structural point of view. Less technical issues are that an adequate level of trust on which the new approach will work has not yet been established and that older gear, in most cases, must be depreciated before significant change can be made.

A survey conducted by Packet Design at the 16th annual MPLS/SDN International Conference in Washington, D.C. found the same uncertainty. The survey, which features responses from more than 100 organizations, revealed that almost 90 percent are using or exploring SDNs. The press release breaks down the reasons they are doing so, which range from "increasing business agility" to "reducing capital expenditures."

The survey showed no shortage of obstacles. Fifty-seven percent of respondents cited complexity as the key challenge, 26 percent identified vendor lock-in, 25 percent are concerned with costs, 21 percent fear a lack of management visibility and 10 percent concluded that not enough benefits would be realized to make it worthwhile. (Participants could identify more than one concern.)

Though management visibility was third on the list of concerns, the press release drilled down on that issue—no doubt because of what Packet Design offers. Regardless of the rationale, the release offered interesting insights:

Given the concern over complexity, it is not surprising that most respondents are skeptical about their current management tools and processes being adaptable to SDN. Fully 71 percent said that some of their existing management tools will not work with SDN, and 84 percent stated that SDN creates new management challenges that require new tools. Less than half (48 percent) believe that SDN will reduce the number of management tools they need, while only 34 percent are depending upon their network equipment vendor(s) to supply the SDN management tools they need.

Nobody said moving to software-defined networks would be easy. But they did say that, at this point, we would know what SDNs are. If that and other issues are not sorted out fairly quickly, the momentum that the concept has enjoyed will likely fade.

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