How SDN can help enterprises become a competitive force in the digital age
Thu 10 Dec 2015
With the digital age dawning, businesses are under mounting pressure to become more agile if they want to compete. This has led to a huge focus on cloud, big data and mobile, but what is often forgotten is that these digital services are delivered on an underlying network infrastructure. Failing to future-proof this platform could ultimately render investments in new technologies ineffective and reduce the benefits they deliver. Digital services require a platform that can scale with spikes in traffic while being able to adapt to changing traffic patterns in real time. Traditional network infrastructures are unable to provide the agility, elasticity and scalability needed to keep up with rapid digital transformation. In order to tackle this challenge effectively, businesses must transition from physical infrastructure to implement a software defined network (SDN) that is more aligned with modern business demands.
The road to SDN
The first step on this journey is to transition from a distributed intelligence based physical network to a virtualised infrastructure where intelligence and control can be consolidated. Many businesses have begun dipping their toe in the water, virtualising individual elements such as a server, router or firewall to realise greater efficiencies. Referred to as Network Function Virtualization (NFV), this represents a stepping stone towards full virtualisation and SDN. The objective is to virtualize and consolidate dedicated hardware-based networking functions onto industry standard commodity compute elements.
SDN takes this to the next level, segregating the control and data plane of the network functions and centralising control, hence reducing all the complexity and enabling faster innovation. There are three major objectives and benefits of NFV, the first of which is reducing the cost of equipment and power consumption through consolidated equipment and exploiting the economies of scale. Secondly, it can run several versions of network functions on a single platform, and finally it offers flexibility for service introduction, which is especially useful in many industries; particularly retail, where IT load varies on the basis of seasonal demands.
To truly reap the rewards however, they must progress beyond this to chain services and functions together in a seamless SDN ecosystem. The key difficulty many SDN-hungry CIOs face is being able to make a business case to the board. Virtualising the network is a major undertaking, involving a large initial capex outlay, which can be hard to justify to the board since it’s difficult to put a fiscal value on the benefits of agility. As well as fronting the bill for a new network, decision-makers will be reluctant to just rip out the infrastructure that has been a source of investment for so long. In a lot of cases, these are recent investments, which have not outlived their purpose.
However, this hasn’t been a problem for all sectors. Within telecoms, switching to SDN can enable new services, making it easier to forecast new revenue streams that can be added to the business case. Retailers have also been looking at tangible ROI from SDN, as it could give them the ability to scale their ecommerce operations up and down in line with seasonal peaks and troughs in activity, eliminating the waste of network resources during quieter times. While early strides have been made in some sectors, CIOs in other industries are still hungry for more success stories to cite as solid examples of SDN’s potential. Once they have successfully mounted a business case for SDN, CIOs will still need to gain access to the expertise needed to implement it, which may not exist in-house. As a result, many will turn to technology partners with the skills and experience developed during the delivery of other SDN implementations.
Accelerating towards SDN
Once the journey to SDN is underway, it’s vital to ensure that the groundwork has been laid to ensure the implementation is a success. Businesses must take the time to map out existing and future application workflows so that network requirements can be clearly mapped out. Failing to negotiate this stage would risk introducing complexities and performance problems among the interdependencies that exist between many processes. The hypervisor environment must also be clearly understood, as this will have a major impact on which approach the business needs to take with SDN adoption. For example, if the business operates on a mixed hypervisor environment, it will require open APIs to provide support across all of them. This will help identify which orchestration tools, analytics capabilities and security protocols will be required to tie everything together and enable IT teams to manage the network through a single pane of glass.
With these aspects considered, the business will be ready to embark on its journey to SDN. While every business is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are three fundamental approaches that businesses are commonly considering. The first is incremental migration, where businesses start small, gradually transferring non-critical workloads that are identified as most suitable to an SDN infrastructure. The migration is incremental, helping the business to identify the effect moving to SDN will have on their existing systems and minimise risk. The second approach is parallel operation, with a virtualised element of a network service, such as a load balancer or a firewall, being built to integrate into legacy technology through a gateway. The two are kept separate, with legacy environments existing alongside newer SDN developments. The final, higher-risk strategy, sees businesses make a complete migration to SDN at once. Applications are divided into different classes, mapped out and moved to SDN. It is most appropriate for start-up businesses, which are free of the complications that existing architecture can bring.
Whichever path businesses take on their journey to SDN, we’re unlikely to see a complete demise of physical networks in the near future. As such, it will be important to adopt a strategy that allows for interoperability of modern and legacy platforms.
SDN clearly has an important role to play if businesses want to remain competitive in the digital age. With SDN adoption levels set to rise over the next four to five years, now is the time to develop a strategy to ensure you’re not left behind. Businesses that start evaluating SDN platforms and planning for the migration will be ahead of the curve, and sometimes being ahead of the curve turns out to be the strongest competitive advantage.