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SDN: Not Just a Technology?

By Andy Partridge M.Sc

I have been watching the development of SDN with interest over recent months. SDN controllers have been released by some major SDN players recently, cementing its importance in the industry and as a technology with a future. Momentum is building, although most of the discussions have been around the technology itself, its capabilities and its application to the challenges within a business.

However, I wanted to start by looking beyond the technology and consider the impact of SDN on other aspects of the business; including teams, productivity, the network engineer, strategic networking, process automation and adoption.

IT Teams have predominantly been technology focused i.e. Network Teams with Network Engineers, Apps teams with Developers. SDN is an opportunity to change this traditional way of working with the possibility of forming 'hybrid teams'. These teams could be made up of a mixture of Network Engineers and Application Developers, increasing agility and effectiveness within a single high performance team resulting in accelerated deployment of new solutions. It would also allow more innovation as forward thinking teams would have the correct skills locally to deliver ideas without having to rely on resources from across the business and compete with different priorities.

SDN, as the name suggests is a software driven technology, requiring software programming skills to make effective network changes. This has naturally left Network Engineers questioning the value of their skills within an SDN orientated world. Although on reflection the technology still uses the same transport mechanisms, therefore, the engineering skills of today will still be required in the SDN environment of the future. Engineers will still need to have a good understanding of IP transport technologies, which will enable them to troubleshoot within different environments with increased complexity.

SDN does introduce new programming languages to network engineers which may cause some resistance but it is actually a blessing in disguise as it has the benefit of allowing management control across an entire network infrastructure with a common language agnostic of the hardware vendor. This also means skills are more transferable between organisations and platforms.

SDN Programming also has the ability to automate some of the network management tasks, i.e. A custom python script implemented on an SDN controller could potential automate the collection of information across an entire estate. This script could check on a monthly basis for any issues in the network configurations that could cause instability or compromise security including port group configurations or miss configured spanning tree. Implementing this script into an SDN environment would dramatically reduce the time spent on the task, increase the accuracy of finding configurations issues and consistency.

Its worth considering the risks of such technologies, one of which is the automation of inefficient business processes. Although this is not specific to just SDN it's just as noteworthy. Process's need to be reviewed and re-engineered to reflect the new agility and programmability of SDN. Automating inefficient processes often just amplify the problem and ultimately will have negative effects within the workplace. It's worth mentioning that a process should add value to the end user. Automation should allow processes to be re-engineered and made more efficient to the benefit of the end user, whether internal or external to the organisation.

Organisations should begin to prepare for SDN and develop a deployment strategy that considers the individual organisations challenges and goals. This should include when to buy into the technology and how to deploy it.

Deployment in SDN pods is considered the best approach, although it does require a top down approach and alignment with the business strategy to achieve the best possible return and benefit.

It is also worth considering the development curve of SDN in the marketplace and where your organisation sits on the technology adopter curve in relation to SDN. I suspect as with all technologies, the innovation is within the many small niched companies. As the technology develops to become more commercially viable, larger companies consume the smaller companies, or the smaller companies merge creating larger companies. At some point during this technology development we will see what vendors and their differentiators will benefit your organisation.

Taking all this into consideration, SDN has the potential to change the way in which a business functions and interacts with the network. This allows SDN to become a strategic advantage, improving users experience and reducing operational cost, although it does require careful planning and integration to your organisation to get the best out of it.

"Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."

July 25, 2014 23:04