What Enterprises and Operators Want (and Need) From SDN

The question of what buyers might want from SDN is one that will become more important as this year passes, though my model says that SDN won’t be a major purchase factor until next year.  What’s helpful in the “early views” is getting a sense of what issues are resonant, because “issue ownership” is the key to effective positioning.  That’s something that faces every network vendor in the near future, with SDN and overall.

A Barron’s blog this week noted that enterprise IT specialists were generally more favorable toward Cisco’s hardware-centric vision of SDN than toward the Nicira virtual-network overlay model.  That’s consistent with the results I’ve gotten in my surveys of enterprises.  The main problem with the virtual approach for enterprises is that it focuses on segmentation, which is something a cloud provider may need for multi-tenancy but that an enterprise can’t necessarily find much of a use for.  They want SDN to improve performance and efficiency and to lower costs.

The big enterprise SDN question, as I’ve noted in earlier blogs, is how you get SDN out of the data center.  You can significantly improve data center network reliability, efficiency, and operating costs by eliminating the disorder of Ethernet-style bridging between switches.  That’s even more true if you extend the data center across multiple locations, which is fairly common in some industries (banking, health care).  The thing is, data center networking is a switching problem, an Ethernet problem, and vendors would really like to empower more IP because margins are better.  Their challenge is that with most enterprises consuming VPN services in the WAN, they don’t own the WAN infrastructure and thus can’t apply SDN to it.  Which makes “enterprise SDN” a carrier SDN problem.

Carriers are of two minds with SDN.  They see the cloud data center mission as clearly as the enterprises do, and they are increasingly aware of the enormous potential for SDN in the metro area.  The challenge they face with metro SDN is that while they understand from a mechanics perspective what it involves (OpenFlow fusion with optical is the number one area of interest), they’re trying to work through what the architecture of an SDN-based metro network would look like.  The big question-mark for them is how metro intra-cloud connectivity (for CDNs, cloud computing services, NFV, etc.) will mesh with the metro aggregation and wireless backhaul missions.  A close second in issue terms is how an SDN-driven metro network might look in 4G applications.  Is the EPC now “virtual”?

The cloud is of course the point of technical and business convergence for enterprise and carrier SDN.  At the cloud service level, one of the questions that’s coming up )both among enterprise cloud planners and among service provider cloud service leaders) is how cloud computing services will expand into the big leagues, the core application set.  One simple point we uncovered in our fall survey of enterprises is that they’re struggling to understand the relative benefits of virtualization, private cloud, or just componentized (SOA-like) software deployment.  Then they have to worry about how public cloud/hosting might impact this.

If a user decides to create applications that are elastic in terms of number of available instances and fail-safe in that they can be spun up on new resources (including public ones) when old ones fail, that doesn’t demand they have anything cloud-like at all.  Not even in the hosting, I would add.  Yes, the cloud is a more efficient option for application hosting providing that the application isn’t eating an entire server.  If it is, the user is going to “buy” that server completely (or, likely, more than that server in price terms) in their fees.  Public cloud works for low-utilization applications, in short.  Same with private cloud.

Enterprises are finding that out, and service providers are now asking just what would be needed to offer enterprises a value proposition to move those business-critical and higher-usage applications.  Probably elasticity and operations costs are a big part of any future value, and that may mean that SDN is a part of that future value too.  But what does an SDN service even look like?  Is it just like IP or Ethernet but with different QoS parameters?  Is it perhaps something that’s nearly-Ethernet or nearly-IP but has some different or special features?  Is management more a part of these services, particularly in cloud-friendly form?  How about provisioning and integration?

Security and application acceleration are two areas where both enterprises and service providers believe there’s a major-league opportunity for SDN and even for NFV-type hosting of service intelligence.  But the interesting thing here is that the number of enterprises who say they have seen or heard a smart solution for security or application performance management based on SDN is down below the statistical noise level.  I have yet to see a strategy for either one that was even interesting much less compelling.

A lot to think about, and talk about.  So why not start talking?


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