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5 Steps Toward SDN Success

Moving to a new technology is like setting off on a journey to a foreign country whose customs are unfamiliar. The goal is to end up looking suave and successful versus bedraggled and bereft (think Bogart in Casablanca rather than The African Queen). Although the advantages of making the passage to SDN are clear – the ability to program network capabilities without their being coupled with underlying hardware – it’s still a journey worth preparing for. Here are five things enterprises have to think about before moving to SDN.

1. Be prepared for ambiguity

As we noted last week standards in the SDN world are still a tad … fluid. “Part of the issue,” as Jonathan Brandon noted in his Business Cloud News story, Getting To A Software-Defined World, at the end of October, quoting Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation, “is that no one is agreed on the need for a killer use case. ‘This is not a technology that requires a killer use case that everybody needs to agree on. The nice thing about SDN is that every organisation that operates a network can use it for their own use cases, their own ‘biggest problems.’”

Brandon continues, “Getting agreement on these, which Pitt says is starting to occur, is almost as challenging as securing consensus on the standards that define how the network communicates directly with the applications themselves – the northbound interfaces – which are critical for the orchestration software needed to bring about all of the promises of SDN.”

Simply put, when you deploy without industry standards in place, you’re going to have to give yourself some flexibility to accommodate them once they become clear.

2. Look at SDN in the larger context

In the past few months, I’ve been deluged with presentations on software-defined networks, software-defined storage, and software-defined data centers – not to mention converged infrastructure, converged appliances, and the hybrid enterprise (I’m still not sure I know what the last one is).

The point is, for a technology that’s been around for a quarter-century or more, virtualization is suddenly triggering a lot of advancements in enterprise technology. As Trevor Pott noted in The Register article, SDI Wars, “The SDI wars will not focus on storage, networking or compute, but on radically changing the atomic element of computing consumed. Instead of buying ‘a server’ or ‘an array,’ loading it with a hypervisor, then backups, monitoring, WAN acceleration and so forth, we will buy an ‘omni-converged’ compute unit.”

In an effort contradictory to making the topic clearer, Pott calls this an “SDI block” and then lists no less than 16 key elements that make one up, including monitoring, analytics, automation, and more. Granted, such a definition is really, really ambitious, but the key point is this: SDN does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not just a new way of networking, it’s a new way of computing. Silos bad, holistic thinking good.

3. Look at SDN in the smaller context

SDN is about virtualization. While lots of companies have plucked the low-hanging fruit of server virtualization, SDN involves more of your hardware in more places. Don’t go over-reaching. Learn virtualization 101 before graduating to SDN 101.

4. Think about management

For as long as I’ve been covering technology (and that’s since OS/2, if you’re counting), I’ve heard the same refrain: “This is cool stuff. [beat] How are we going to manage it?” The first time I heard it, in fact, related to LANs, and the problem hasn’t gone away now that we’re moving to SDNs. It was a big topic of conversation at the Data Center World conference, held at the end of October.

In the Data Center Knowledge article The Software-Defined Data Center: Translating Hype into Reality, Rich Miller notes the importance of not only being able to manage those workloads, but also being able to analyze activity. The goal: understanding how to make configurations even better.

But Miller also adds, “As workloads move, the power and heat travel along with them, raising challenges for power distribution and cooling. … [T]his places a premium on communication between the IT team and the facilities staff, two groups that don’t always work in tandem within the data center.” That is, think about resources management as much as you think about application management.

5. Talk to peers

Lots of IT departments are already sticking their whole foot into SDN. Check out the vendors’ web sites for customer success stories or testimonials from customers and/or analysts. Find out where they’ve tripped, and figure out how to avoid those potholes in your organization. Don’t be hesitant of they’re not in your industry. Sometimes there are advantages to new technology that span horizontally, not just vertically. Then, once you’ve got some experience, be a source of insight for the next wave of inquirers that comes along.

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