SDN prompts more questions than answers

ONX conference finds strong appetite for more information


If there was one takeaway from Network World's Open Network Exchange (ONX) conference this week, it is this: software-defined networking is producing more questions than answers.

A recent Network World study of 298 network professionals, highlighted at the conference, found that only 9% of respondents have SDNs in production with 6% piloting. Almost half of the respondents, 43%, said SDNs were not even on their radar screens.

An IDC study found that 57% of 500 respondents are not considering or implementing SDNs (28%), or are waiting to see the results of other organizations' experiences before adopting (29%). Forty-six percent said SDN will cause them to restructure network operations, and only 9.4% believe the network team exclusively will have ownership of the SDN/network virtualization environment.

And in the ONX audience of roughly 200, only three or four raised their hands when asked if they have implemented an SDN.

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: Enterprise SDN use lags service providers'+

They came to learn what, when and why they should deploy SDNs. They discovered that SDNs are still being defined by standards organizations, and that more than one definition may exist.

"You ask about cloud and SDN and you get a different answer from everyone," said presenter Tom Koukourdelis, director of global infrastructure at NASDAQ.

They found out that SDNs are either an enabler of network virtualization, are network virtualization, or both. They learned the difference between overlay network virtualization - VMware's NSX, Juniper's Contrail and Alcatel-Lucent's Nuage Networks - and fabric-based virtualization, like Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure, HP's Virtual Applications Network and Brocade's hardware-based, "hybrid mode" OpenFlow strategy.

Attendees were told that SDNs are a benefit not only for the data centers of the largest Webscale and cloud providers, like Google, Amazon and Facebook, but for the access, campus and WAN portions of the enterprise as well in applications liked unified wired/wireless access, NAC, intrusion prevention, workload balancing and isolation, WAN optimization, virtual firewalling, and TAP monitoring and aggregation. They were advised to brush up on their software and application knowledge because it is SDN, after all, and SDN is all about applications programming the network - or the network programming itself - on behalf of the application.

Indeed, they were told that network virtualization will eventually be baked into every Broadcom chip on every switch they buy. So that changes the SDN game from network virtualization to application policy.

"Time to get rid of your VLAN pipe wrench," quipped Frank D'Agostino, senior director of technical marketing and solutions engineering at Cisco.

They were told by other users that market fragmentation - overlay vs. fabric, network virtualization vs. application policy abstraction, OpenFlow vs. other southbound protocols - was good for them.

"We actually love a confused marketplace," said William Thirsk, vice president of information technology and CIO at Marist College. "We like competitors to slug it out."

Thirsk also extolled the virtues of open source SDN controllers and applications over vendor-specific alternatives.

"Everything we can do open source we select that," he said. "We love open source."

And they learned that the strongest motivation for moving to SDN is staring them right in the face.

"The real driver was our network," said Richard Sillito, IT security technologist at Canadian airliner WestJet, rattling off a litany of issues with oversubscription, single points of failure, aging hardware, poor design, complexity, and changing traffic patterns: from North/South to East/West. "When PCI compliance auditing finds you have an FWSM (Firewall Services Module) with 1,500 lines of code, the network is the problem."

The benefits of networking and security as a pooled resource will be worth the effort, Sillito promises.

"Everything in your data center is software definable and able to be controlled," he said. "And the road to automation is the road to self-service."

But SDN is also forcing networkers to broaden their scope, says Robert Cannistra, a Marist professor who runs the Computer Science and Mathematics School's SDN Innovation Lab.

"You can't put network blinders on anymore," he said. "You have to learn about the business strategy behind this. I guarantee you'll be better off."

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