• 04/22/2014
    1:01 AM
  • Rating: 
    0 votes
    Vote up!
    Vote down!

SDN: Waiting For The Trickle-Down Effect

Like server virtualization and 10 Gigabit Ethernet, SDN will eventually become a technology that small and midsized enterprises can use. But it's going to require some new packaging.

The networking industry has been awash with talk of new hyper-scale and cloud-enablement technologies, such as software-defined networking (SDN). But what will move these technologies from niche solutions and cloud-scale networks to small and midsized businesses that are not necessarily focused on technology innovation? When will the small and medium enterprise (SME) market see value from SDN?

There is a well-understood model of adoption of new innovations popularized by Everett Rogers called the diffusion process. Most new technologies work their way through this process and their adoption is driven by lowered costs and increased stability and use cases. Recent examples of this model in action within the IT world include:

  • Server virtualization
  • Ever-increasing Ethernet switching speeds
  • Smartphone and tablet deployment

In this model, the early work by the innovators and early adopters sets the stage, but it isn’t until the technologies stabilize in second- or even third-generation products that they begin to gain mass-market appeal and appear less risky. For example, 10 years ago, x86 server virtualization was a relatively new market, adopted initially by very large organizations or those who needed unusual levels of flexibility. Today, just about every company that has at least two servers has virtualized them.

Likewise, several years ago, 10 gigabit Ethernet ports were expensive enough to be used only sparingly by large companies. But as prices have dropped through improved manufacturing, increased scale, and technological refinements, 10GbE has come within reach of most organizations (even if only for a few ports). This trend has brought with it improvements in virtualization density and feasibility of IP-based storage products.

In my experience of working in the SME market, these companies are generally in the late majority or even laggard stages of the IT adoption curve. Why? Simply, many companies of this size can tolerate only limited risk on infrastructure projects and are not comfortable spending time and money on a new technology until it is well-understood, well-packaged, and prices drop due to broader adoption. They just do not have the resources (budgetary or human) to be the innovators, develop new ways to use technologies, or adopt early when standards, products, and vendors are still evolving.

So what will drive SDN adoption in the SME market? I think it will be the packaging of SDN technologies into turn-key solutions. Many small companies do not have the time or desire to innovate, but they can see the value in a packaged solution that uses SDN to enable new capabilities.

The market is already starting to bear this out with products such as Big Switch Networks’ Big Tap Monitoring Fabric and Coho Data’s use of SDN to enable new IP storage capabilities in a fully-packaged product. A notable element about these products is that SDN is not a user-facing feature, but rather a means to an end.

I expect more products in the monitoring and analytics space, and possibly other datacenter services, such as server load-balancing and security solutions, to evolve using this model. An example might be an intrusion prevention system (IPS) or network traffic scrubbing platform that uses SDN techniques rather than traditional means of diverting traffic, such as policy-based routing and tunneling, to provide a more robust and flexible solution for multiple stages of traffic scrubbing or inspection.

As products like these demonstrate easy-to-implement and well-supported SDN-based systems, midsized businesses will gain comfort with the technologies, and mass adoption of SDN -- not as a raw technology, but as a means to provide new infrastructure capabilities through integrated solutions -- will begin.

I suspect this will take a few more years to further trickle down to small enterprises, but it will happen just as it has for server virtualization, high-speed Ethernet, storage area networking, and many other technologies.  


Waiting for SDN

It seems like it could potentially take a very long time before off-the-shelf products that SMEs are comfortable investing in are available in the SDN market, considering all of the jockeying going on around standards and different vendor approaches. Any guesses on how long that might be?

Re: Waiting for SDN

That's tough, maybe seven or even 10 years? SDN hasn't made much headway into the large enterprise market yet, so reaching SMEs is going to take a while. And as you point out, the SDN market doesn't offer the stability SMEs would need.

Re: Waiting for SDN

I am a bit skeptical. Network automation has been around for years, but still has not taken off. I think for service providers and large network systems it will be a necessary thing, but in lots of small shops, they will continue to do things they old ways they are comfortable with.

Re: Waiting for SDN

At this year's Interop expo, a guy was excitedly talking up all the interesting SDN stuff they were highlighting on the show floor. And it was interesting. Then he got out, and the guy next to me said "But ask what SDN actually is." So I'd say your skepticism is pretty widely held, Builder1, and there's a whole lot of education, evangelizing, and converting left to do.  

Re: Waiting for SDN

Builder1, I think your skepticism is pretty reasonable. As a group, network engineers have been pretty slow to adopt large changes in the way we do things. You're right, network automation is nothing new, but I think it does suddenly have much more focus from the vendors. Adding APIs and programming frameworks, on-box Python interpretters, and integrating with open controller projects is a far cry from implementing SNMP or even a limited, customized scripting language like Cisco's classic Tcl support or EEM.

The point I was trying to make in the piece is that for smaller businesses to adopt SDN, it's going to be less about adopting SDN as a technology, and more about enjoying the benefits that SDN can offer to vendors who can build interesting new products using SDN as a backing layer. I think that will happen even for small shops that continue to do things as usual, because these capabilities will get baked into products that feel to the smaller business as a product evolution rather than a revolution.

Thanks for reading!

Under the covers

Bob. Considering that it will take a while for SDN to trickle down to the SME market, do you think that by that time the technology will be so well accepted that managers in SMEs will simply accept it as just another networking feature built into core networking products rather than something new and wonderful?

Re: Under the covers

Hi Jamescon,

That's the direction I'm thinking things will go. There will always be outliers, very small companies that build their own offerings around SDN, but for companies that use IT as a means to enable/deliver their own core business offerings I think their adoption will mostly wait until the dust has settled and SDN is "just another feature" that is widely available and well standardized. If I'm right, by the time that mass adoption really hits home in those smaller markets, the inclusion of "SDN" features in a product may be perceived as comforting, rather than seeming new and risk-prone.

Thanks for reading!

Re: Under the covers

When I think of SDN, I think of a process that requires some significant tinkering (for example, getting a controller to successfully speak OpenFlow to a bunch of switches such that reconfigurations can be made on the fly). But as you note, SMEs want something more turnkey.

I wonder if it makes more sense to talk about network applications rather than SDN when we talk about SME adoption, because that's sort of what it sounds like you're talking about: instead of a wholesale architectural/operational change, SMEs will wait for SDN features to trickle down into their equipment.

I found this SDN company at the recent redhat conference

I found this Virtual Network Infrastructure company at Redhat last week. plumGRID. It was interesting because they can demostrate virtual networks on physical, kvm, vmware - the idea was an IO engine gets installed and anywhere the IO engine is it can carry the virtual networks. The fabric can be anything, L2, L3, even IB, and tunnels are in VXLAN but could be xGRE or STT - doesnt matter what the physical is. This way you can do L2 storage across a L3 fabric, and you can keep L2 adjacency off of L3 fabric, and you dont need to deal with any multicast stuff either for learning it. The nice thing here is they have a compiler which allows the compilation of virtual networking entities in the virtual networking domain(s) - so the networking functions that they provide could be changes if needed. The other thing I like here is the vxlan IDs are totally managed. No more VLAN or VXLAN mapping, just create a fabric, a management, and have some external networks and plug them in. Then they can slice up networking the same way we slice up big machines into VMs. You can use the fabric to make as many networking domains as you want and the tenents, whether they are in vmware of openstack, are able to see the networking they are assigned and whatever external legacy networking entities they were given. They also run their IO on top of non-virtual, namespaces, containers - not just VMs. The nice thing about all this complexity is that the physical switches never get touched or played with and it gives me a real opportunity to lower the netops tickets required to make tons of networks - you dont need to netops to do things to make networking slices - I keep thinking slicing like deli meat. The think that worried me is all this complexity can be hard to deal with having networks on networks but the workflows in this product are very interesting as they can be completely hidden behind opestack networking and completely integrated with vmware workflows. I wish Cisco would buy these guys or something as this is what cisco's virtual networking strategy should be but I guess it doesnt help sell hardware so we are going to get asked to rip out all our 6500s to get datacenter features yet again.  Seems to me with companies like this talking about virtualizing vi hyperv, namespaces, containers, kvm, openstack and ESXi all with the same IO engine at a Redhat conference and working with redhat openstack to do all this is very interesting to me. I wish I could download a free trial of this stuff but ill be getting a copy of this soon hopefully - have to beg the CIO for time for this. they also have this feature that per virtual networking area per vswitch per router per nat you can have analytics queries pumping the virtual network interface data out, its like having splunk+snmp+netflow+sflow and they support triggers you could build heuristics off this stuff.

Networking Geeks still trying to boil the ocean

The purpose of SDN Architecture to enable innovation. Today's killer SDN App Network Virtualization brought to you by Microsoft, VMware and others, exactly what is it you are waiting for?