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Doing A Reality Check On SDN

Not many industry research firms are known for their sense of humor, but you have to appreciate Gartner when it comes to its hype cycle. The hype cycle tracks five phases of new technology, from the trigger (1), up the peak of inflated expectations (2), down to the trough of disillusionment (3), the smaller slope of enlightenment (4), and finally the plateau of productivity (5).

The only things missing: the phases that occur when a technology fails, including the aggrandizement of the uninvolved and the execution of the innocent bystanders (I made these up myself).

According to Gartner, software-defined networks are currently sliding down into the trough of disillusionment, while SDN applications are still atop the peak of inflated expectations. And they have been for a while. As Arthur Cole, writing at IT Business Edge, noted last year in A Look Beyond The SDN Hype Cycle, “Vendor-driven over-enthusiasm always precedes a pessimistic backlash and, finally, acceptance that the world is not coming to an end. And this process usually plays out before the technology has even proven itself in the field.”

Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Why? Because vendors tend to promote new technologies as somewhere between miracles that cure cancer and must-haves that make enterprises more effective, efficient, and productive. This triad comes up so often, in fact, that I have set up an AutoCorrect command in Word that lets me type “eep” and have it automatically expand into that phrase.

That kind of promotion whets everyone’s appetite, so they start dancing around the technology. They research it. They talk to peers about it. They tinker with pilot projects. It’s like kids playing in mud puddles, because it’s actually kind of fun seeing where the spray shoots when you splash. It’s a good thing because IT technicians get to see what a new technology can do and what it can’t. They get to see where the boundaries of reality actually lie. They get to see how it might actually work for their business.

So where is SDN on the hype curve this year? Well, you have to wonder when other vendors (see this Ericsson Research blog for early October) categorize it as being headed to the “trough of despair” [sic]. Presumably vendors despair and users are disillusioned. Ericsson seems to think that the OPNFV initiative is going to solve its problems, but as we noted last week, standards – even well-intentioned ones – tend to slow down rather than speed up the inevitable.

But that attitude seems to be the outlier. As Jim Duffy noted in NetworkWorld a couple of weeks ago, “SDN is exiting the hype phase and entering the usage stage.” He based this pronouncement on estimates from the Dell’Oro Group noting that “the data center software-defined networking market is expected to grow more than 65% in 2014 to about $3 billion, reflecting the maturity of architectures and the deployments under way” (italics mine).

Way down at the bottom of the story, Duffy adds these telling words: “Data from other research firms tracking the SDN market range from $3.7 billion in 2016, to between $18 billion and $35 billion in 2018.”

Now, since this is a reality check, let’s be clear: these are forecasts. I’ve always wanted to go back to recheck some of the more wild estimates that have come out of research firms. But these forecasts indicate a strong interest in SDN.

However, if you want evidence of reality, look no further than Barron’s report published in early October about J.P. Morgan’s recent SDN Forum, published in Tiernan Ray’s Tech Trader Daily blog. Ray said, “In terms of where the industry is at, Hall emphasizes remarks from vendors that suggest they are actually shipping and deploying product, rather than merely talking about the tech.”

He also quoted J.P. Morgan analyst Rod Hall as saying, “In a noticeable change from last year all panelists talked about actual deployments that they are currently involved in with most expecting material production environment rollouts in 2015.” Hall also cited an update from Nuage Networks CEO Sunil Khandekar, who cited a Fortune 150 company implementing his company’s technology across its data center architecture.

You know what? That doesn’t sound like the trough of disillusionment to me. That sounds like some early adopters scrambling up the slope of enlightenment in search of competitive advantage. I’m betting the words “disillusionment” and “despair” won’t be connected to SDN come 2015.

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