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Don’t believe the hype: why enterprises need not worry about SDN just yet

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According to industry commentators, networks are currently seeing the same high level of innovation as other parts of the technology infrastructure. Software Defined Networks (SDN) in particular has garnered interest from major vendors, such as VMware, Cisco and Brocade. Analysts predict that it’s a technology on the rise with Gartner’s annual network-related ‘Predict’ research forecasting major changes to the enterprise network market as a result. Indeed 34% of its respondents stated that they would be adopting the technology within five years.

So should business be rushing out and implementing SDN right now? In my opinion, no. I don’t believe that it’s viable yet for enterprises to do so but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not something to consider further down the road.

It’s true that the rise of SDN as a concept is the result of networks not keeping pace with other technology innovations, such as cloud and virtualisation. SDN aims to change that by bringing agility and flexibility to networks. It enables network administrators to respond to business demands by manipulating traffic using a central console rather than having to make changes directly to the switches. This means that the organisation can change, amend and deliver services whenever or wherever it’s needed.

While this sounds ideal for the enterprise, the reality is that due to the current lack of available off the shelf software, to make SDN work effectively companies will require an in-house team of software developers to create a bespoke application to deliver it. This is beyond the resources of most companies.

That’s not to say that companies shouldn’t make sure that they’re SDN ready. Many of the large network providers are developing networking hardware that contains SDN-ready elements. Our partner Brocade has made a great start in this area with its SDN capable controllers. But it’s early days yet. We’re certainly not as far on the adoption curve as some would have us believe.

In fact the early adopters of SDN are the service providers themselves. These organisations do have the in-house skills and resources to develop bespoke applications and can see the benefit of doing so. ISPs, CSPs and so on need their networks to be agile and use traffic manipulation to ensure that they’re delivering high-level quality services, security, profiling and billing.

This is great news for the average company who will benefit indirectly from the flexibility of SDN but in truth don’t yet need to implement it themselves. So when will the tipping point of enterprise adoption arise? I liken it to the adoption curve for the PC. When IBM launched the PC, adoption rates where low until the killer app – Word Perfect - arrived (the first word processing app for those not old enough to remember). It’s the same for SDN. Large-scale enterprise adoption is likely to be limited to service providers until its killer app arrives. While currently those apps are being created in-house, in the future we’ll see ready-made apps developed by trusted companies that can be applied to in-house infrastructures.

When it does come, SDN adoption is likely to be driven by the mobility need of the average company. As wireless continues to increasingly become a business essential, so does the network administrator’s need to control network access, traffic, identity management, BYOD security and even P2P monitoring.

For enterprises considering SDN or even implementing a network refresh it would of course be essential to look at network devices that are SDN ready. From a price point there’s not really much in it. Then when the killer driver or app arrives, organisations are in a strong position to take advantage of the flexibility that SDN brings. In the short term however let’s leave it to the service providers to deliver improved services.

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