How (and why) to get started with SDNs

The rise of software-defined networks (SDNs) is one of the big tech stories of 2013. For many IT organizations looking at deploying the technology, it's no longer a question of 'if,' but 'when,' according to Gartner's Joe Skorupa, research vice president for Data Center Convergence and Andrew Lerner, research director for Networking, at Gartner.

While virtualization and the cloud have increased data center agility, network provisioning remains a roadblock, says Skorupa.

While virtualization has allowed businesses to spin up new virtual machines in hours when adding new applications or workloads, the networking portion still requires a significant investment of time, energy and resources, he says, and that's the problem SDNs can address, Skorupa and Lerner said in a presentation at Gartner's Data Center Summit today.

The Need for Speed and Agility

"Network building is still based on the network architecture blueprints of the late 1980s and early 1990s," says Lerner. "What's driving the need for SDNs are businesses wanting to significantly improve network operations agility, reduce the time to provision network resources, and implement a multipathing network topology that can support both north-south and east-west network traffic," he says.

[Related: Top 10 Software Defined Networking Startups ]

[Related: What CIOs Need to Know About Software Defined Networking]

An SDN decouples the data layer of a network from the control layer, and delegates traffic control to servers instead of routers and switches. This technology means that, for the first time in years, APIs can be used to control and manage the network from the server side, Skorupa says, and can enable innovation at the device level. There's also the potential for development of new applications and functions that can help resolve latency and performance issues currently plague networks, he says.

"We tell our clients to look into at least two vendors that aren't your incumbent networking vendors, and a third that is a startup, because this is about learning what is possible."

--Andrew Lerner, Gartner

"Through APIs, we have the ability to write apps that control and manage the network. Some of these will look familiar, some will be entirely new - SDNs will give us a whole new technology stack," Skorupa says.

"Perhaps you could control bandwidth allocation, resiliency or even service chaining -- if, for example, you wanted to deploy a new instance of SugarCRM, you could program the network to automatically set up firewalls, set policies and services, so every time that application moves through the network, the correct, secure policies and services proceed it," Skorupa says.

In other words, the value of SDNs is in their capability to enable agility, says Lerner. Because businesses will be able to externally control and automate networks and networking functions, they can speed up deployment of new applications and policies, he says, and that can create a huge competitive advantage.

A New Technology Approach

SDNs aren't a replacement for the traditional command-line interface (CLI) networking pros currently use to program networking devices, they offer a completely different way to think about designing, building, and operating a network, says Skorupa, that can speed up provisioning and better allocate human and technical resources to make businesses more agile.

[Related: Application Services Meet Up with SDN in the Cloud]

"One of our clients told us, 'The instant one of my techs sits down and pulls up the CLI, I know I've lost,'" Skorupa says. "Organizations are looking for ways to get rid of that 'human middleware,' so they can reallocate resources toward more strategic initiatives that can help move them forward," he says.

That's why, Skorupa says, for early adoptions, most businesses are choosing personnel with a very general networking knowledge, not those who have a laundry list of networking certifications, or who know every obscure CLI code, he says.

Bring in New Tech Blood

"Even when existing networking teams are involved in deploying SDNs, they are not choosing the folks who have a vested interest in the technology of today -- because those people aren't going to want to change," Skorupa says.

With new technology like SDNs, businesses must look to new approaches, new personnel, and new vendors, Lerner adds.

"We tell our clients who ask how to get started with SDNs not to start in development, or even QA -- start in the lab with testing. Look into at least two vendors that aren't your incumbent networking vendors, and a third that is a startup, because this is about learning what is possible and what you can do better," Lerner says. "You need different approaches, and to get the maximum value, you need to look at new vendors," he says.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.

This story, "How (and why) to get started with SDNs" was originally published by CIO.

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