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Does SDN Simplify Or Complicate Network Management?

For as long as I’ve been covering technology – and I’ve long since passed my silver anniversary – I’ve always been able to rely on the IT double take that comes with any advancement: “This is really great! [beat] [beat] How are we going to manage it?”

I first heard it when I was talking to an IT guy in financial services about his initial deployment of the 3+open operating system from 3Com (if you remember that 3Com stood for computing communication compatibility, you’ve had some silver anniversaries of your own). He loved the idea of networking PCs together in a LAN, but he admitted that managing them had its challenges.

Fast forward. What new technology hasn’t come with the same plaint? Clouds. Mobility. Virtualization. And of course, software defined networking.

I suspect that, just like that IT guy from early in my career, we’ve got some challenges ahead – as well as a potential payoff.

Here’s why: late last month, Jim Duffy wrote in NetworkWorld about a survey of service providers commissioned by routing analytics company Packet Design. The survey’s goal: take the pulse of SDN, just as it had the year before. Service providers, of course, have the most to gain from investing in new technology because it’s part of their core business strategy; they’re always going to be ahead of the curve.

The survey revealed that 53% have deployed SDN, compared to 19% in 2013, and the overwhelming reason is “increased agility to support new service rollouts.” That’s at the heart of underpinning business expansion. But here’s the kicker: according to the results, 32% said management tools are “currently inadequate for SDN, a percentage that is up 52% from 2013.” Translation: more people are using SDN, but more people are unhappy with the management tools available.

Duffy followed up his story with a round-up of startups targeting SDN management, noting that “configuring, maintaining and changing WAN infrastructure can be a nightmare given the distributed nature of the beast and all the remote touch points.” He quoted long-time networking analyst Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research, as saying that “SDN can be used to automate and manage WAN operations … WAN issues are hard to address because of the dispersed nature of the resources.” The big advantage of SDN, according to Kerravala: “SDN brings automation and orchestration from a centralized location and allows you to react faster.”

(As Shamus McGillicuddy at SearchSDN noted the following day, Nuage Networks’ new Virtualized Network Services software competes with the same start-ups Duffy cited to offer “simplified management and orchestration.”)

But just how this new style of network management going to be done? Traditional network management tools rely on SNMP, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear SDN equivalent within OpenFlow. This may not sound like good news, but I think it is – or has the potential to be. If what Kerravala says is true, IT is not only being liberated from hardware-specific configuration, it’s also being liberated from hardware-specific management. In other words, you’ll be able to manage devices the way you want to, not the way the application dictates. It’s a little like doing custom development versus buying packaged software. Both have their advantages, but both require some customization.

But it seems like there’s a bigger potential payoff here. Even as vendors strive to add management capabilities, you also have the opportunity to develop some of your own management capabilities. That may sound like more work, but it also gives you the ability to focus more closely on your most important network connections. Rather than the democratized view that comes with a network management application, you get to program the monitoring tool the way that works best for your business. Just a hunch here. Stay tuned.

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