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Making the SDN Transition: First Steps

Interested in making the switch to software-defined networking? Don't feel like you need to do it in one leap, advises Eric Hanselman, 451 Research analyst and Interop Las Vegas SDN track chair.

As software-defined networking moves beyond the hype, many organizations are contemplating plans for migrating to SDN. But getting started can be a challenge, given the complex nature of the SDN landscape with its assorted architectures and multitude of vendors.

"The big question is do you have to buy into SDN whole hog -- jump into the deep end first -- or can you make this transition in a more gradual fashion?" Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research and SDN track chair for Interop Las Vegas, said in an interview. "Fortunately, it's not something that you have to do all in one shot."

Companies can get started on the road to SDN by automating pieces of their network environment through virtualization. "Most organizations have gotten to the point where they're automating some of the simple networking technologies, like VLANs, but those basic techniques need to take a step up," Hanselman said.

Network overlays are a good choice for stepping up automation, he said. "Overlay technologies are a great way to enhance connectivity, but not yet cause disruption in the existing network operation."

A network overlay is an SDN option in which tunnels are set up between virtual switches inside hypervisors, networking expert Greg Ferro wrote in a recent InformationWeek report, "Overlay Networking: An Introduction."

"While the tunnels make use of the physical network to send packets, they don't have to configure switches to get traffic to its destination," he wrote. "By contrast, other SDN approaches use methods such as OpenFlow to program switches."

For organizations interested in migrating to OpenFlow-based SDN, the Open Networking Foundation's migration working group recently made available a paper that describes SDN use cases and best practices for SDN migration. The paper includes three use cases: Google's inter-data center WAN, NTT's service provider edge, and Stanford's campus network.

[Read about the security challenges that come with software-defined networking in "Beware SDN Security Risks, Experts Warn."]

The level of readiness for SDN depends on an enterprise's organizational maturity in terms of how much automation and orchestration they already have in their infrastructure, Hanselman said.

"To really leverage SDN, you need some level of sophistication in orchestration. ...If you're not already starting to automate deployment of compute and storage resources, there's not much point in starting to automate the network," he said.

SDN's Impact On Networking Pros

All the movement toward automation naturally has some network engineers on edge. Networking practitioners are wondering if SDN will put them out of work, Hanselman said.

He urges network pros to embrace the transition as something that can help them play a bigger role in an organization. Otherwise, they risk being left behind.

"So much of what has been guiding networking for so long has been the firefighting -- all of the modifications, all of the odds and ends of troubleshooting that occupy your average networker's day," he said. "By integrating with more sophisticated management, SDN can get rid of the more repetitive day in and day out drudge work."

To make this transition, network engineers will need to be better versed in the various aspects of IT operations, Hanselman said. Learning some programming skills -- for instance, Python -- can go a long way in terms of understanding the steps toward greater automation.

"We've spent a lot of effort getting really good at CLI wrangling," he said. "Now, we need to set the console cable aside and work within management systems and scripting capabilities to really understand in greater detail the higher capabilities of our various platforms."

Anxiety aside, many organizations appear to be marching ahead with SDN plans. An Enterprise Strategy Group survey of 300 IT pros in charge of networking found that two-thirds of the companies polled are committed to SDN as a long-term strategy. Twenty-seven percent said they've actually begun implementation.

"For better or worse, we've come through a period of tremendous hype ... What's happening is people are starting to understand there's value of moving beyond the hype," Hanselman said. "They're understanding there is something other than all of the flash and grand claims -- the fact it can really work and help operations work more efficiently."

[Eric Hanselman will moderate a panel discussion on the changing roles of network pros as virtual networks, SDN and automation makes inroads in the enterprise. Don't miss "Will SDN Make Me Homeless?" at Interop Las Vegas March 31-April 4. Register today!]

Marcia Savage is the managing editor for Network Computing, and has been covering technology for 15 years. She has written and edited for CRN and spent several years covering information security for SC Magazine and TechTarget. Marcia began her journalism career in daily ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/21/2014 | 4:28:09 PM
re: Making the SDN Transition: First Steps
Adoption of SDN technology can be most easily and cost effectively accomplished through a managed service solution. This really applies to SDN for the Enterprise WAN, and not so much the data center. The DIY approach places significant risk on the buyer due to the lack of standards and betting on the wrong start-up vendor. Both could end up costing far more than the hardware and software itself. ADN (Application Defined Networks) based managed service solutions are in wide scale use by many leading corporations such as Shell, Google, ExxonMobil, and Little Ceasers. Otherwise companies are really investing in bulding the resumes of their technical staff and ensuring them greater job security (until the project runs way over budget).
User Rank: Apprentice
2/19/2014 | 3:14:10 PM
re: Making the SDN Transition: First Steps
To some extent, the interoperability of SDN with non-SDN is played up to be a little bigger than it actually is. Interoperability occurs at boundaries. How you view interoperability depends on where you draw those boundaries.

So if you deploy SDN solutions across a couple of racks, those devices (be they physical or virtual) will still likely speak Ethernet and IP to the outside world. The SDN-ness ends at the boundary, but that doesn't mean the world is flat and packets fall off a cliff when they get there.

What customers need to be asking is how these boundaries are drawn with various solutions, and then identifying how that fits with plans. If the boundaries have to be drawn too broadly, then you have massive replace. I they are drawn too narrowly, you have a small sphere of SDN influence.

-Mike Bushong (@ubm_techweb_disqus_sso_-1f1aa9da472195170d23a745dc1f3a27:disqus)
Susan Fogarty
Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/19/2014 | 1:59:00 PM
re: Making the SDN Transition: First Steps
I think "gearing up" is probably the right phrase to use. I was actually surprised at how positive some research results from ESG cited in one of recent articles were -- two third of respondents were including SDN in long term plans and 90% were interested. But there is a really big learning curve, so I'm sure some organizations may need some help before they even take that first step.
Marcia Savage
Marcia Savage,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/18/2014 | 11:18:20 PM
re: Making the SDN Transition: First Steps
Readers: Are you gearing up for a transition to SDN? Any tips you can share for getting started?
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