A few years ago, everyone was talking about software-defined networking. It was going to be a massive game changer that enabled much cheaper, more efficient, and dynamic networking. These days, you don't hear nearly as much about SDN. But experts say that the technology is making inroads, just in a more low-key fashion than expected.
"Early on, SDN was envisioned as the thing that would change everything about networking. SDN controllers were going to take over the world and be the massive brains of your network," Lisa Caywood, director of ecosystem development at the Linux Foundation's OpenDaylight Project, told me in an interview. Today, vendors and users alike have come to view SDN as a tool to solve specific business problems instead of a "grand platform that will solve all ills," she said.
Companies are building solutions around and on top of open source SDN platforms, but not necessarily advertising them as SDN, Caywood said. "It enables them to do something they couldn't," she said. "So that revolution is happening, but it's a quiet revolution."
Caywood will moderate a panel at Interop ITX in May, "SDN: What Is It Good For?" The session is designed to provide practical guidance for defining and scoping an SDN project.
451 Chief Analyst Eric Hanselman, an Interop ITX Review Board member, agreed with Caywood's assessment of SDN. In networking, unlike other IT disciplines such as computing, it's hard to try out new technologies, he noted. "When you start messing with the network, it's got a much further impact. We wind up introducing technology in networking in somewhat more stealthy ways."
Today, innovation is happening in networking, but it's not something end users would necessarily be aware of, Hanselman said. "New types of service capabilities and the ability to stand up capabilities in different ways are at the core of what we hoped to be able to do," he said. "A lot of that is taking place sort of under the hood."
For example, while some proclaimed last year that OpenFlow was dead, the SDN protocol is "actually the underpinning of a bunch of things that aren't all that flashy" such as dynamic connectivity management and monitoring that’s performed in networks today, he said.
Slowing down the transformation of mainstream networks is the fact that networking technology is replaced much less frequently than other IT equipment: Every six to seven years compared to three to five, Hanselman noted.
Far from dead
A recent study by F5 Networks found that 44% of infrastructure and network pros believe SDN will have a strategic impact on their organization in the next few years, Lori MacVittie, principal technical evangelist at F5 Networks, noted in a recent blog post, "Turns Out SDN Is Not Dead Yet." Security pros also view SDN as strategically important, according to the survey of 2,200 F5 customers.
"The reason for this resurgence is likely found in the emphasis on private cloud implementations," MacVittie wrote. "With enterprises placing a high degree of importance on it and planning on investing heavily in such efforts in 2017, SDN is a natural 'go to' for turning traditional networks into an agile, programmable set of connections suitable for supporting the more volatile environment that is any type of cloud, including private."
"SDN, like DevOps, has been largely subsumed by a broader initiative to automate and orchestrate, with an emphasis on doing and less concern for the more philosophical and cultural aspects of both technologies," added MacVittie, who will present "Operationalizing IT with Automation and APIs" at Interop ITX.
SDN use cases
As SDN has evolved from its early hype, Caywood said from her open source work, she's seen companies implement it in ways she didn't expect. For example, one North American telco used SDN to offer managed infrastructure services to K-12 schools – not exactly the type of organizations you'd expect to jump on cutting-edge technology.
"They're in the business of making sure the lights stay on because districts don't have a lot of money and most goes to student initiatives," she said. But schools were interested in SDN to help manage their distributed environments.
"There's one person in a district office trying to manage a bunch of things at different sites. The fact they could do so with SDN was valuable to them," Caywood said. "It meant that if a router when down at a school site, they knew right away what was going on."
Another area where SDN is gaining traction is global retailers with many physical branch locations, she said. They're starting to incorporate the same type of architectural techniques that have proven out in the carrier world. "They're doing fairly large architectural shifts, where SDN is one piece of the puzzle to support global and distributed types of operations," Caywood said.
Hanselman said it's still early days for the enterprise in terms of SDN, but that network visibility is one of the early use cases. Visibility isn't a risky initiative to implement on the network, he noted.