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SDN and network virtualization: A reality check

Jim Metzler | Sept. 10, 2014
The Software Defined Networking movement is still evolving, but profiles of SDN users are becoming more clear and we're getting a bead on some of the common evaluation criteria companies are using to gauge how to go forward. We also have a sense of when companies expect to start the process in earnest.

A criterion that also gets a lot of attention is whether an SDN solution is open.

Unfortunately, the term open is used in a variety of different ways, so the answers to this question can be confusing.  For example, some vendors refer to their product as being open if it is based on open source software or if it is based on a specification that they themselves developed and published. 

A somewhat more common use of open is support for industry standards such as the OpenFlow protocol, or if the solution is based on a specification that was developed by multiple vendors. 

While I think open is important, what IT organizations really need is interoperability. Interoperability is critical because, in the majority of cases, IT organizations will not get a complete solution, including business applications and L4 - L7 functions, from a single vendor. Because of this, you need a high level of assurance that the various components of the solution will interoperate smoothly.

And, again, the criterion that matters most to you will depend on your environment and goals. If your primary objective is to find a way to dynamically move virtual workloads, you'll probably reach for a network virtualization tool that leverages the server hypervisor. But if you want to be able control all of the virtual and physical elements in your network, you will probably lean toward a model that takes more hardware management into account.

A question of timing

Of course early adopters in large financial shops have probably worked all of this out by now, but when should other IT organizations start to get on board?  When will the technology be ready for what Geoffrey Moore called the "early majority" in his book "Crossing the Chasm?"

Most articles about technology adoption say one indicator that the chasm has been crossed is when 15% of companies are using the new technology. Other things I look for include there being a high probability the technology will work as advertised when implemented without requiring a boatload of intervention, and surprises relative to scalability and security will be limited. Another key indicator that a technology has crossed the chasm is that IT organizations have roughly the same ability to manage the new technology as they do traditional technologies. 

Since few IT organizations will implement SDN in the near term without doing a Proof of Concept (POC), I asked attendees at the recent Network World ONX show how many expected they would do an SDN POC in the next 12 months. About 25% of the attendees raised their hand.

Since the ONX attendees took two days out of their workweek to attend the conference, they likely work for organizations that have more interest in SDN than the average IT organization. And even some of the faithful at the conference will undoubtedly face shifting priorities, meaning some will undoubtedly not get around to a POC in the next year.


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