Down the rabbit hole

The industry is touting new software-defined concepts that go beyond pure-play networking. But how far down does the software-defined rabbit hole go?

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Down the rabbit hole
By  Tom Paye Published  January 22, 2015

The software-defined network has been one of the biggest networking topics of the past year or two. The trend promises unheard-of network agility, as well as simpler network management. Despite this, precious few enterprises (with the exception of a couple of web-scale organisations) are seriously utilising SDN, though interest is certainly high in the Middle East. Could this mean that, before long, we’ll begin to see software-defined networks connecting software-defined storage arrays hosted in a software-defined data centre? And if so, when will such concepts come into being?

In the Middle East, at least, the short answer is not for a while. While much noise has been made about software-defined networking over the course of the past year, the consensus is that regional enterprises either aren’t yet ready or aren’t yet willing to invest in the new style of networking. But according to Neil Rickard, research vice president of Gartner, for all the hyperbole surrounding SDN, it should be remembered that this is an upcoming trend of great significance.

“Certainly it is quite important, and it’s especially important in the sphere of data centre networking, where it’s going to enable network agility to keep up with virtualisation of the data centre. It’s going to make the network, hopefully, as flexible and agile as the virtualised server environment is,” he says.

“In fact in the long term, it has even more ramifications beyond that use case.”

That last point is what this analysis seeks to get at. But before jumping down the rabbit-hole of software-defined networking, it’s worth getting to the root of what the trend means for the networking industry now. Only once we understand this, can we reasonably predict what is likely to follow.

It’s well known that SDN allows for the separation of the data plane and the control plane within the network. This allows for greater agility, as it not only means that policies can be rolled out across the infrastructure in a copy-paste fashion, but new applications can be provisioned as easily as servers are provisioned on virtualised infrastructures. The icing on the cake is that everything can be centrally managed through a single dashboard – or so the theory goes. Den Sullivan, head of architectures and enterprise for emerging markets, Cisco, provides a run-down of the current state of SDN in the Middle East.

“SDN is still in an embryonic stage in the Middle East. Currently Middle East companies rolling-out change across network infrastructure face a complex and time-consuming process by configuring networks box-by-box. In response to a rapid increase in processing growth in the region, Cisco is driving the take-up of SDN, a network solution that provides adaptability, simplicity, flexibility, and agility. SDN tightly integrates emerging software approaches with the underlying physical infrastructure, in order to centralise network management with real-time end-to-end solutions,” he says.

“Across the Middle East and Africa region, SDN can potentially transform operators’ business, with service providers viewing virtualisation to reduce costs and to work with their infrastructure to provide greater value by means of increased agility and elasticity. Cisco’s answer to SDN across both the data centre and enterprise networking environments is the application-centric infrastructure (ACI), which is a holistic architecture with centralised automation and policy-driven application profiles.”

According to Asfar Zaidi, principal solutions consultant at Huawei Enterprise Middle East, amongst the primary drivers for SDN adoption today is the need of businesses to support virtualisation of IT applications, the ability to deliver new applications across the network, and increased speed for provisioning application workloads on the network.

Indeed, Gartner recently predicted that worldwide public cloud services will witness a compound annual growth rate of 17.1% by 2018 with a predicted $4.7 billion being spent in the MENA region. Zaidi says that this means that a need to build a network that will accommodate greater levels of business agility where services can quickly and effectively be set up in a matter of minutes on demand will need to be considered. However, he also cautions that adoption is still low across the Middle East.

“Adoption of SDN is still in its early stages, generating significant interest from CIOs but there is still a number of questions that need to be explored before greater levels of confidence in making the investment is worth the risks. What are the real implications of SDN adoption into their existing infrastructure? Will their current investments be protected and not be made obsolete should they migrate their systems to an SDN set up? Is their IT team equipped and armed with the right skill sets to manage and maintain the IT systems based on SDN?” he asks.

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