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SDN Management: Risks And Challenges

Traditional network management techniques don't work with software-defined networking. Automation of management best practices is critical for SDN to succeed.

Software-defined networking (SDN) has the potential to be transformational and disruptive, but opinions vary about how widespread adoption will be. One hindrance to adoption is network management, which tends to be an afterthought with a bright and shiny new technology. However, to help fuel SDN adoption, a conversation needs to happen now about how to manage it.

When a new application or service is installed in a traditional network, typically a planning group gets involved to assess whether or not the network is ready for it. With SDN, engineers no longer get weeks to prepare for the rollout of a new application. In fact, programmability takes the operator out of the equation.

In addition, traditional manual and device-centric management methods cannot provide the visibility needed to run a programmable network that automatically adapts to application demands. This is especially true across the dynamic, resource-constrained WAN where management is more complex than in the datacenter.

If applications and services are being rolled out without operator intervention and adequate visibility, how do you plan for them? Who or what governs whether or not these programmatic changes should be made? How do you know if the network can support a new request without negatively impacting existing applications?

Many think that if you remove error-prone humans from network planning and operations, problems won’t happen. But people do not cause many fault and performance issues. SDNs are still prone to link or node failure, software bugs, unforeseen protocol interactions, and other issues.

In addition, SDN presents brand-new challenges. For example, in a large WAN, how many controllers should you have? Where should you place them? What if two controllers talking to the same switch give conflicting instructions?

Arbitrating competing network resource requests will be critical as will setting up new paths in the first place. You will need to verify that paths are set up properly and conduct ongoing monitoring. Things like visualization of the current SDN topology will be critical, so you can understand the impact of programmatic changes.

Automating Network Management

The main challenge is being able to move today’s management practices into the automation realm. We must be able to understand what impact an application requesting resources from an SDN will have on performance. SDN creates the need to replicate traditional functions of capacity planning, monitoring, troubleshooting, security, and other critical management capabilities.

It’s less a question of needing to develop brand new ways to manage networks, but more about adapting what we know are good, robust network management techniques.

For example, route analytics is proven to improve availability and performance in the traditional network with real-time, network-wide visibility into topology details, routing events and traffic patterns. This is directly applicable to SDN, because successfully monitoring and managing SDN applications requires always-current network models and traffic load profiles as well as the ability to predict the impact of change to network routing topologies and traffic flows.

[Read why Tom Hollingsworth thinks the debates over OpenFlow, NSX and ACI miss the point in "Focus On SDN Tools Obscures SDN Benefits."]

In addition, route analytics can take advantage of the unique application insight found in SDNs, with network diagnosis, analysis and reporting that is application-aware. For instance, it can report whether the application's servers are best positioned to serve that application's user base.

All this requires more detailed and sophisticated analysis of what’s happening in the network. Vendors and the SDN community at large are mostly ignoring SDN analytics, which are crucial for:

• Troubleshooting and visualization.

• Determining the network state at any given time.

• Inspecting and replaying events learned both from the controller and the network devices.

• Comparing routing state and paths when a service/application is performing well and when it is not.

• Monitoring paths for changes in hops, metric, delay, and bandwidth.

An awareness of the management challenges of SDN is crucial, but then the industry needs the right tools to move management into the automation realm. Network professionals need the same level of visibility and control into SDNs as they do in the traditional network. This requires some new technologies as well as adaptions of existing technologies and best practices that provide the intelligence and analytics needed to address the unique challenges of software defined networking.

Only when organizations have adequate management will the promise of SDN to be transformational and disruptive be realized.

Cengiz Alaettinoglu is CTO of Packet Design.

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/7/2014 | 7:47:43 PM
re: SDN Management: Risks And Challenges
Thank you Mike for your comment. We agree provisioning is a part of network management, and SDN is addressing that aspect very well. But the other FCAPS aspects are being ignored right now, including analytics.
User Rank: Apprentice
2/7/2014 | 4:26:36 PM
re: SDN Management: Risks And Challenges
I think I am a little confused by some of this article. SDN is largely addressing the management problems of statically and manually managed networks. SDN is as much about workflow automation as it is about anything else. I don't see SDN as a technology that comes in, and then requires a management add-on. SDN is the management piece.

I also don't think SDN removes the operator. Most IT shops don't want their app guys programming the network directly any more than the network guys want to give up complete control. The name of the game is not APIs - its abstractions. How can the application guys express requirements in ways that can be parsed and used by the network guys? And when that happens, how do workflows change?

I agree on the increased role of analytics and information in general. Any system we create has to have a closed-loop feedback system. I see this as useful not just in proactively tuning things but in validating that things are behaving as designed.

As for practitioners who might read this, I would encourage you to view SDN as a means of improving management. Separating SDN and workflow automation into distinct buckets seems, IMO, to slightly miss the point of SDN.

-Mike Bushong (@mbushong)
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