Speakers’ Corner: Embracing the benefits of SDN

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By moving to an SDN vendor-agnostic platform, a provider is able to integrate an open software infrastructure and integrate new innovation as it comes along

Software-defined technologies such as software-defined networks (SDN), and software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) are opening up new opportunities for people to improve their IT infrastructure. But they’re not yet widely understood.

The reality is that SDN, and related technologies, are at the heart of next-generation networks. SDN delivers a new network architecture where the intelligence of the network is controlled centrally by software, enabling greater automation, agility and flexibility.

SDN does away with the need for separate boxes for individual tasks and also makes it easier to provision new services at the drop of a hat. But, at present, there are a lot of options to think about and many are struggling to grasp what each solution means for their business.

Others don’t even realise the benefits they will get from such technologies. For example, a premium car manufacturer I spoke to kept having to buy bandwidth all the time and didn’t know why. It was only later they realised capacity was being gobbled up on social networking that didn’t deliver value.

They needed the ability to control what was going on in their network and prioritise key traffic and services. The combination of application visibility and control adds real value in this kind of scenario. Another company I spoke to work in manufacturing.

They wanted to increase their global footprint and add intelligence through IoT-connected sensors and they wanted to do so quickly. SDN was a good option for them as well as it enabled them to add new service resources and scale up at speed.

Where to start?

On the other end of the spectrum to the firms that have a business need and are looking for the solution are those who are already hearing a lot about software-defined and related technologies. They want to know what all the fuss is about.

Many are scratching their heads on what route to take. The best course of action may be to think about how your business will operate in the future as well as today. Take a look at the landscape that we’re currently presented with. SDN, SD-WAN, NFV, VNF are all available but which should you choose and why? And, more importantly, is there a right and wrong way to approach the software-defined options?

At present, the available network options are numerous, but, as with the carmaker I mentioned, the overall aim is to enable administrators to monitor and control the activities taking place on their network from one central location. Software-defined technologies enable companies to establish new digital business workflows, better manage network capacity and launch customer interaction channels quickly.

When it comes to software-defined anything, we’re still in the hype phase. There’s a temptation to lead with the technology but we should in fact reflect each business’s reality as well as their aspirations for the future. We will see a gradual move away from the private network and static configurations towards a more hybrid, agile software-defined environment where the ability to consume services becomes the norm.

SD-WAN provides its own robust set of features and benefits such as better visibility and control over the resources on your network, and to utilise available links and services in a dynamic fashion, in line with your business priorities.

SDN brings that to the next level by taking us away from vendor-specific implementations and towards a truly open environment where software-delivered applications and services can be deployed on almost any platform rapidly and as required.

I look at it like this. Think about your car sat nav. Using SD-WAN might be similar to using a proprietary standalone device. SDN is slightly different in that it is delivered on a vendor-agnostic platform. So, using the same analogy, it would be like using your mobile phone to direct you on the roads, using whatever app you want on that device.

As a result, if you’ve already invested in the hardware, there’s a likelihood that you’ll want to keep hold of it for a few years to justify that investment. But taking a software approach gives you more choice, so you’re less locked in.

True choice

One of the most important things that needs to happen to really unlock that flexibility inherent in this type of set-up is more focus on standardisation across different products and services. We’re in a settling-in period where there’s some interoperability, with APIs and open source software.

They’re already starting to help make different vendors’ products and services work together but there’s still a way to go to enable everything to work seamlessly so the customer can have true choice. Part of that is making sure the SD-WAN services we have work on the SDN platforms and that’s something we’re investigating at the moment.

In the next three to five years, we’ll see the shift from hardware to software-based services as service providers work on the same set of open standards. There will be an era of deploying anything, anywhere on any platform.

The decision you make today regarding a software-defined infrastructure won’t be a black and white choice. It will differ according to your individual business needs. The challenge is making sure that the SD-WAN or SDN provider you choose is able to offer you the right service and to keep an open environment so that you have a choice over future services and are not “hemmed in” to a particular set of features.

Your service partner should be able to offer you an agile environment that doesn’t lock you into something that you might later find isn’t fit for purpose. If you are deploying an SD-WAN solution, ensure you are diligent in your choice.

An SDN solution, which can maintain vendor neutrality by deploying features in a license model will allow you to substitute one set of applications, such as a particular firewall, for another. And that can be done economically and quickly and often in near real time, with full orchestration and automation of the service chain.

By moving to an SDN vendor-agnostic platform, a provider is able to integrate an open software infrastructure and provide the ability to move with the technology and to integrate new innovation as it comes along. The leading providers will do that with the robust global service and support that you need to let you focus on your business.

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