How to adopt a disruptive network technology with minimal disruption

Emerging network technologies such as SDN, SD-WAN and intent-based networking promise to improve service and streamline operations, but don't let the transition process throw a wrench into existing activities.

Disruptive network technologies are great—at least until they threaten to disrupt essential everyday network services and activities. That's when it's time to consider how innovations such as SDN, SD-WAN, intent-based networking (IBN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) can be transitioned into place without losing a beat.

"To be disruptive, some disruption is often involved," says John Smith, CTO and co- founder of LiveAction, a network performance software provider. "The best way to limit this is to use proven technology versus something brand new—you never want to be the test case."

Smith suggests limiting risk by following a crawl, walk and run approach. "Define the use case and solve it while initially limiting the risk exposure to a discrete set of end users for proof of concept testing," he says. "It’s always good to ensure that the business case will drive the need for the disruptive networking technology—it helps justify the action.”

"Starting with a smaller proof of concept in a non-production environment is great way to get comfortable with the tech and gain some early operational experience," advises Shannon Weyrick, vice president of architecture at DNS and traffic management technologies provider NS1. Before launching any disruptive technology, make sure everyone involved recognizes the value, understands the technology and rollout process and agrees on the goals and metrics, he adds.

Switching safely to SDNs

Software defined networking (SDN) is designed to make networks both manageable and agile. Utilizing a proven technology that’s been in the field successfully is vital to ensuring minimal disruption around SDN deployments, Smith says. "On the data center side, Cisco ACI and VMWare NSX are reliable infrastructure technologies, but it really depends what fits best with the business," he observes.

Full network visibility is essential to minimizing disruption, as an SDN installation works out its inevitable start-up kinks. "Having visibility solutions in place, such as network performance monitoring and diagnostic (NPMD) tools, can eliminate deployment errors and quickly isolate issues," Smith explains.

Kiran Chitturi, CTO architect at Sungard Availability Services, an IT protection and recovery services provider, recommends choosing an approach that embraces open standards and encourages an open ecosystem between customers, developers and partners. "Before adopting at scale, be patient in selecting specific use-cases like optimizing networks for specific workloads, accessing control limits and so on," he says.

Start with the open source and open specification projects, suggests Amy Wheelus, network cloud vice president at AT&T. For the cloud infrastructure, the go-to open source project is OpenStack, with many operators and different use cases, including at the edge. For the service orchestration layer, ONAP is the largest project in Open Source, she notes. "At AT&T we have launched our mobile 5G network using several open source software components, OpenStack, Airship and ONAP."

Weyrick recommends "canarying" traffic before relying on it in production. "Bringing up a new, unused private subnet on existing production servers alongside existing interfaces and transitioning less-critical traffic, such as operational metrics, is one method," he says. "This allows you to get experience deploying and operating the various components of the SDN, prove operational reliability and gain confidence as you increase the percentage of traffic being transited by the new stack."

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