Working in a small or medium enterprise (SME) is a constant juggling act. The lifeblood of the business revolves around providing services and products as quickly as possible to retain customers. Any disruption in that ebb-and-flow can crush profits and put people out of work. Unlike larger enterprises, SMEs can’t afford to invest in huge amounts of technology or afford massive disruption during technology refreshes. And if there's an outage, it could mean the end of the road for everyone.
For the large enterprise, software-defined networking (SDN) has clear benefits. The combination of orchestration, automation, and programmability allows the enterprise IT department become more agile while at the same time staying small and increasing services to users.
However, in an SME, the situation is often very different. IT departments usually consist of a single person or none at all, with other “skilled” employees playing part-time troubleshooter or implementer when not taking orders or driving a delivery van. It's much more difficult to realize many of the advantages of SDN in a small business because their relative impact is lessened by the smaller size of the IT department. But SDN does offer benefits to networks of all sizes.
One SDN benefit that small and midsize enterprises can leverage is in tuning the network to support application performance. Large enterprises use application packages that have teams dedicated to tuning performance, and networks can be tweaked to provide maximum performance. SMEs don’t usually have access to teams like this. Software packages are purchased off-the-shelf and any customizations that occur must be done by the SME.
Here's how SDN can help the SME on the application front: By providing a platform that allows the network to adapt to applications without need for major modification to the software. The most common example of this today is with Microsoft Lync. SDN allows the network to adapt Quality of Service (QoS) policies dynamically to optimize Lync calls for quality. QoS configuration is time consuming and difficult under the best of circumstances. With SDN, the QoS profiles for a given application can be applied without needing to know the specifics of how to tweak the knobs manually.
SDN can also save time when things don’t go as planned. Troubleshooting is a huge time sink for SME IT professionals. Non-working applications or equipment means downtime for the business. Downtime costs money, both for the salary of the professional and the cost of not getting business done. The ability to quickly pinpoint problems and fix them is critical.
SDN can expedite troubleshooting for networks of any size. By having information about forwarding tables throughout the network, you can determine the state of the network at any point in time.
Going back to the earlier Lync example, if a user complained that call quality was subpar during lunch on Tuesday, SDN would allow the IT professional for the small or midsize business to pull information together in one location and observe the state of the network. He or she could determine that a large FTP transfer was processing during the call, or that the wireless card on the user’s laptop had higher-than-average retransmits during that window. Rather than spending hours compiling logs trying to find answers, an IT pro can use SDN to get a quick and easy presentation of the data and pinpoint the root cause of the problem.
There are a few ways to take advantage of SDN in the SME today. Some vendors, such as HP and Brocade, have enabled SDN features on their hardware platforms that can be used today for little to no cost to the SME. Others, such as Cisco, offer some SDN options to specific platforms that are available with a bit of research on sites such as Cisco DevNet.
Wireless vendors also offer excellent support for application-based SDN policies. Aruba Networks and Meru Networks have pioneered methods for optimizing Lync and a growing number of wireless products are implementing technologies for application recognition and handling. Most of these features are available in basic software or for a small license upgrade. It's worth your time to speak to your vendor to find out what’s available.
In the end, every minute saved working on the network of an SME is a dollar earned. More time with customers and products has a direct result on the bottom line of a company. With the help of SDN, the IT department of an SME stops being a cost center and transforms into a force multiplier that helps employees communicate better, be more productive, and ensure the business not only survives but grows.
Don't miss Tom Hollingsworth's live session, "SDN in Education: Empowering Tomorrow's Leaders," at Interop Las Vegas. He'll examine SDN use cases for primary and higher education and provide perspective on SDN for small enterprises. Register now for Interop, April 27 to May 1, and receive $200 off.