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SDN: 5 Things CIOs Must Know

Software-defined networking promises to pull today’s network into the virtual age, but CIOs have to separate speculation from reality. Here are five observations to help guide IT leaders’ thinking.

There are many reasons to be hopeful about the potential for software-defined networking to transform the data center in positive ways. While the technological elements behind SDN are still emerging, we can look to a previous example of a software-based abstraction layer--the hypervisor--to get a glimpse of how SDN might affect the data center. With hypervisors in place, companies enjoyed faster, more automated application deployment, and gained significant flexibility regarding where and how workloads run.

SDN aims to bring similar benefits to the network. CIOs that have yet to investigate the potential for SDN should keep five facts in mind.

Today's Network Is the Bottleneck

Although networks have vastly improved over the years, they have also become much more complex. This complexity makes it hard for the network to match the speed at which applications can be deployed on the server side of the house, and to keep up with virtual workloads that are no longer tethered to physical machines.

SDN aims to simplify network configuration through a variety of mechanisms, including centralized controllers and network overlays, and to provide programmatic interfaces that allow for a higher degree of automation in provisioning network services. This promises to make networks more flexible when it comes to adding or changing services, and thus more responsive to business demands.

CIO guidance: Keep your eye on the potential benefits that could be had from SDN and, when it's ready for prime time, consider implementation.

SDN Isn't Ready for the Typical Company

Although SDN is getting a lot of buzz these days, most CIOs should take a wait-and-see approach. Such a complete rethinking of the foundational infrastructure in the data center will take carefully crafted standards for SDN to live up to all expectations. One such expectation is that a network based on SDN will be able to run with equipment from a variety of vendors, thus leading to the kind of commoditization that the server crowd has enjoyed for the past decade.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, SDN will empower organizations with the kind of flexibility that can come from software-driven programmable interfaces. Applications will be able to "instruct" the network about their individual requirements, and the network will respond with configurations that support the specific needs of that application.

We're not there yet. Both the commoditization and programmability require significant groundwork to completed on the standards that will govern the technology.

CIO guidance: Don't jump on SDN today. Watch the technology and standards for now.

SDN Reduces Human Middleware

As networks have become increasingly complex, organizations rely on networking staff to manage this complexity . This adds a layer of people between the technology and the outcomes, resulting in the creation of what many have taken to called human middleware. With SDN fully deployed, there will be two levels of networking skill needed: The first will be a lower-level skill set that requires knowledge of the hardware side of networking--connecting cables, placing equipment and so forth. The second will be SDN experts, which are networking pros that know how to "program" SDN-capable networks. If SDN achieves its goal of reducing complexity via automation, and thus reducing the need for staff to perform a variety of manual tasks, fewer people will be required.

CIO guidance: Keep SDN in mind in hiring decisions in the coming moths and years. Network administrators with a programming background will be a valuable resource.

SDN Is a Business-Enabler

The business should be the real winner in an SDN environment. With the abstraction layer that comes from software, business needs can be met faster and more efficiently. If CIOs discover that SDN allows them to refocus networking staff on business-facing problems, that's an additional win for the company.

CIO guidance: As SDN begins to be implemented, work hard to ensure that all of its benefits are realized in order to achieve maximum return for the business.

Keep SDN In Mind for Major Changes

Thanks to the effect that virtualization has had on the data center, network traffic patterns have become much more chaotic. A variety of technological solutions are available now to address that chaos, such as network fabrics that aim to increase the number of pathways through the network. However, before you invest in any significant architectural changes, consider whether those changes can or should also accommodate SDN.

CIO guidance: If you can, avoid a major networking overhaul until you determine if and when SDN might play a significant role in your data center.

Scott D. Lowe is the founder and managing consultant of The 1610 Group, a technology and strategy consulting firm based in the Midwest, and an InformationWeek contributor. Scott has been in the IT field for close to 20 years, and spent 10 of those years as CIO for various organizations.

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