“Surfing’s not a sport. It’s a way of life.” So said Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The same idea can also apply to software-defined networking (SDN) in the data center — it’s not just a technology; it’s a new way of life for IT.
At this point, it seems unlikely that data networks will avoid abstraction for much longer. The latest report from Infoholic Research points to a market that will grow more than 37 percent per year for the next half-decade, generating more than $12 billion in total market volume in the U.S. alone. What is perhaps more interesting is that the services and applications portion of the market is expected to make up more than half the total, meaning that key hardware and software platforms will lay the foundation for what will likely be a vibrant development community.
But the real impact of SDN is not the way it changes infrastructure but the way it changes the process of deploying and maintaining network connectivity. For one thing, says Vesko Pehlivanov, vice president of cybersecurity at Credit Suisse, it fosters an environment in which the network is no longer a distinct entity from processing and storage. Everything will be software-defined before long, and that means all resources will be programmed to work in an integrated fashion. For the IT workforce, this will lead to an erosion of specialized skills like network or storage management in favor of full-stack or DevOps expertise.
A second big change is the order in which management and operations processes will proceed, says tech consultant Andrew Froehlich. What Cisco and others are calling Intent-Based Networking is actually a reversal of the traditional configure-provision-populate process for networks and other infrastructure to one in which the use case is defined first and then the appropriate networking policies and resources are compiled to provide optimal support. In this way, IT will finally be able to give users what they want (within reasonable limits, of course) rather than forcing them to alter their goals and expectations to conform to the restraints of a finite, pre-determined network environment.
SDN, and its companion technology, network functions virtualization (NFV), will also deeply affect the enterprise budgeting and sourcing strategies, says Vodafone’s Scott Petty. Today’s single-vendor approach that is weighted heavily toward capital expenditures and ongoing maintenance will likely transition to an open platform approach, which eases up on the capital budget but places more emphasis on integration and configuration. This won’t happen by itself, however. Organizations will have to make a conscious effort to scrap existing static infrastructure models to one that takes greater advantages of the architectural and operational efficiencies that software-defined infrastructure presents.
To be fair, revolutionary technologies have had profound effects on IT operations and management before, but in general, they tended to reinforce existing practices with bigger, better, faster performance.
With SDN, however, IT will finally the ability to shed the confines of limited resources and rigid configuration options and instead look at the network and say, “Hey bud, let’s party.”
Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering Enterprise IT, telecommunications and other hi-tech industries.