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Six questions to ask your SDN supplier

Businesses considering investing in software-defined networks need to ask their suppliers some important questions.

Let's face it - real-world deployments of SDN are currently few and far between. While deployments have started to reach beyond the leading-edge Googles and Microsofts of the world, most enterprises and service providers are still in research mode with respect to SDN and the related Open Networking and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) movements. The good news is that suppliers – even the leading-edge suppliers – are also more SDN researchers and developers than installers and integrators right now.

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With all the SDN research and development going on in the industry, there is no shortage of SDN publications and pronouncements. Unfortunately, much of this SDN material is focused on raw technological advancements or unrealized potential benefits. What is missing is the practical guidance for the operator looking to move to SDN sooner (and smoothly) rather than later (and roughly).

How does an operator fill the void between technology and reward? The following questions must be asked – and answered – if an SDN solution is to deliver on its promise:

Question 1 - How do you make it easy to for me to integrate SDN solutions into my current network?

Let's face it - change is the primary source of network problems. Most studies claim that software-related changes cause most network problems. And here we have SDN, not only representing major change to the network, but major software change to the network. You can bet that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt related to SDN rollouts slow adoption of SDN solutions and, ultimately, the delivery of SDN benefits. Two things go a long way toward reducing the FUD factor relating to SDN deployments.

First, validated working solutions provide solid proof that SDN solutions can be weaved into current infrastructures without exposing a working network to all the risk typically associated with major network alterations. Second, the continued use of existing network designs and devices within a new SDN structure provides comfort from both a technical and financial standpoint. Upgrading the old provides so much more comfort than replacing with new.

Question 2 - How do you promote the development and delivery of SDN applications?

The more advanced SDN solution suppliers have already established strong programs aimed at attracting application developers. However, attracting developers is one thing. Nurturing them is another. How is this different, you ask? Well, APIs and SDKs send notice that an SDN solution is open to third-party development. These tools serve as the initial attraction to developers. To heighten delivery of SDN applications, people and programs must stand behind the products. Here, engineering resources, certification programs, and integration services drive success over the longer term - for the SDN supplier, application developer, and network operator.

Question 3 - How do you ensure that partners provide maximum impact for my network? What role do partners play in your SDN solution and what type of partners are most important to you?

By its very nature, the SDN environment is multivendor. No one vendor will come close to providing all the key pieces of the SDN puzzle. From devices to controllers to applications, SDN is, first and foremost, an integration challenge for all - suppliers and operators. The more successful suppliers will minimize the integration burden for operators. This requires the build-out of a high-impact ecosystem of partners and, most importantly, the execution of programs that serve to validate third-party product interoperability, facilitate the deployment of mixed vendor solutions, and streamline the delivery of support services aimed at day-to-day operations and future enhancements.

Question 4 - How do you help me get started with SDN?

The enterprise or service provider is increasingly sold on SDN. The benefits are just too compelling to ignore. Now comes the hard part - implementation. How do the operators prepare? Where should they focus their deployment efforts first? What are the first key steps to success? Where will they see immediate impact? What are the risks? The more concrete the guidance, the better the result will be.

With that said, bear in mind that suppliers themselves are learning on the fly with SDN, too. Here, the supplier that is willing to commit in-line resources -- not just off-line verbal or written guidance -- to your preparation, installation, and initial operation is solidifying not only the operator's specific deployment, but their own SDN technology and techniques.

Question 5 - How do you assure that your SDN solution promotes open networking?

SDN will never deliver on its full promise unless it is enabled by open networking technology. As earlier questions and answers indicate, systems integration, application development, ecosystem management, and rewarding deployments all pose a challenge to SDN adoption. Core to solving all of these challenges is effective use of open networking technology wherever possible. Does this mean that proprietary software and hardware systems are dead in SDN environments? Not at all. Standardized systems will never keep pace with all operator demands. Here, the proprietary system will serve us all well. The key for operators is to leverage all the open networking movement has to offer and choosing proprietary solutions that drive maximum value and accommodate ready replacement or adaptation as standards evolve.

... and a final bonus question:

We’re early on in SDN adoption. Even the early users of SDN have applied the technology in rather specialized ways – e.g. data center traffic management. We’re learning new SDN technologies, techniques, and troubles every day, it seems. With the vast majority of operators very unsure about what to do with SDN, the above questions must be asked and answered before SDN moves into the mainstream. With all the potential benefits of SDN, widespread adoption is inevitable. Solid answers to the above questions make SDN happen sooner rather than later!

Of course, with all that said, every operator should also be asking themselves, "How could SDN help my users, my staff, my organization... now?"

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