Software-Defined Networking Market to Soar to $2B--But Not Yet

IDC says it expects a lot for the software-defined networking market--including an evolution from a $200M market to a $2B market by 2016. But it's still early, and there's much to learn, according to experts.

May 29, 2012

3 Min Read
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Software-defined networking (SDN) is poised for rapid growth and has the potential to solve specific business problems for enterprise networks--but it's still early days for the technology, analysts caution.

IDC predicts software-defined networking will grow from a $200 million market in 2013 to $2 billion by 2016. The primary driver for the growth is highly virtualized network environments and customers who need programmable networks, says Lee Doyle, group VP, networking and security at IDC. "Customers have always wanted to tune the network, but network management tools have been poor or non-existent."

Doyle says IDC's forecast for OpenFlow and the software-defined networking market as a whole includes switching and routing as well as services and software.

SDN separates network data traffic processing from the logic and rules controlling the flow, inspection and modification of that data. Traditionally, network management software has been vendor-specific for hardware such as switches and routers, but now vendors are responding to enterprises that require more control. Products are coming to market from companies in three categories: traditional network vendors, such as Cisco; large IT vendors, such as IBM, Dell and HP; and startups, such as Big Switch and Arista.

One of the most notable recent product releases was the NEC ProgrammableFlow Controller PF6800, which won the Best of Interop Overall award this month from InformationWeek Reports. The PF6800 is noteworthy because it's the first enterprise-class, OpenFlow-compliant network controller, and the OpenFlow standard has become synonymous with SDN.

Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation, the organization shepherding the OpenFlow specification through to standards, says enterprises are eager to gain more control over networks as they cope with server virtualization, virtual machines and multiple wireless devices. Software-defined networking enables IT managers to solve specific issues that affect the network, he says.

Next: How Software-Defined Networking Benefits an EnterpriseOne trend that has been affecting the security of enterprise networks is BYOD, or bring your own device. According to InformationWeek's 2012 State of Mobile Security, CIOs need to put the brakes on BYOD, shore up Wi-Fi polices and bolster encryption to secure corporate data. Pitt says SDN can enable an organization to control access to the network and resources at a very granular level. "You can directly program the network for the characteristics of an individual user."

The ability to program the network is what software-defined networking is all about, says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research, but OpenFlow isn't the only avenue available. He notes some vendors such as Arista and Brocade have open APIs, enabling software-defined networks to work together. "A lot of people have linked software-defined networking and OpenFlow together, but it's programmability that makes a software-defined network."

Software-defined networks could help enterprises deal with big data, as well as cloud computing, adds Doyle. "Big data is a network challenge--what's going to be local, and what's going to be remote?"

Doyle says OpenFlow is getting a lot of vendor support and there are a lot of OpenFlow products going to market, but it does pose challenges. "It's a new set of tools that have to be learned, and it doesn't do everything."

Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, says service providers and telcos in particular should look at software-defined networks, even though the technology is in its early days. He says SDN can help automate manual processes for companies looking to consolidate and scale up data centers.

It's still early days for SDN, says Kerravala: "There are lots of potential trajectories for the technology." He says enterprises need to look at their own particular challenges and focus on solving a specific business problem. For example, SDN lends itself to separating network traffic. "Software-defined networking is for networks what VMware was for servers," he explains.

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