ARN spoke to Dimension Data's, general manager, networks, Paul O’Donohoe on the emergence of software-defined networking in the Australian market.
1. How mature is software-defined networking (SDN) in Australia and what industries and sectors of the market are leading the charge?
Right now SDN in Australia is exiting the hype stage. There has been a lot of market interest but little movement until recently. Implementations were limited to the early adopters, and generally only in the telco and service provider spaces. However, the bow wave of implementations has now started with financial institutions and academic organisations now implementing and preparing the market for broader enterprise adoption.
The number of organisations already implementing SDN would, anecdotally, be around 100 or so; with the number of production implementations being in the low tens. However, this is a sign of the early lifecycle phases rather than being an indicator of interest. The number of organisations moving SDN into production is growing each month and the “trial” phases are becoming shorter as the industry demonstrates the benefits.
Australia currently has some of the highest levels of virtualisation in the world (across compute, desktop and a growing level of storage) and organisations are now looking for the same benefits from their networks.
2. Where is the biggest opportunity for the channel around the shift to software-defined networking?
Let’s face it, the network has become the forgotten or marginalised area of ICT. It’s often seen as a commodity element that provides little business benefit and is only remembered when something fails. This could not be further from the truth and there is a resurgence in the importance of the network as the foundation of all the other aspects of communications and computing.
Much of the current maligning of the network is due to the constraint around agility. Changing the network is still a science that requires complex plans, high levels of change risk and very long change cycles. Since SDN is the introduction of abstraction and programmability into the network, it fundamentally reduces the complexity, speed and risk associated with managing the network. It allows your network to become a point of business differentiation.
Since programmability is about embedding business and process logic (rather than device configuration) the channel can expect to elevate network conversations to customers’ business decision makers rather than engineers.
3. How is this shift changing the skills needed for channel partners to succeed in this space?
Channel partners need to overhaul not only how they do business, but also how they view themselves. In this age of upheaval, they cannot afford to see themselves as technology resellers. Partners need to take a long-term view of their clients’ IT strategy and become business consultants. They need to recognise that SDN is not a technology solution – it is a business solution. By understanding and aligning your clients’ network requirements with their unique business needs, you become the trusted advisor – the guide who leads them on their journey toward agile, automated and intuitive infrastructure.
The networks of today are highly complex and therefore attract people with deep technical skills and high levels of certification who operate at the “bits and bytes” or “speeds and feeds” level. On the other hand, SDN stems from business analysis. The skills here are around understanding business strategy, process flows and prioritisation. It’s a world of app enablement, not data transfer speed.
Moving the sales and engineering teams from the old world to the new, in a way that’s timely, efficient, and preserves the culture and values of the business, is the real challenge facing channel partners. My discussions with vendors and service providers across the industry hasn’t yet shown a “best practice” way of doing this so the ability to do this right and ahead of the competition will be the next point of differentiation.
4. What are the biggest challenges in moving to a SDN approach?
I would suggest there are two high-level challenges associated with SDN.
Firstly, many customers see it as a technology solution and believe that their engineers will simply add the appropriate box to the side of their network. However, almost all the benefit comes from programming business rules into network decision making. Therefore, this is about business and business process. The technology is simply the enabler so engaging the right customer representation can be a challenge.
Secondly, every technology vendor has “SDN” somewhere in their offering and the industry is flooded with mixed messages about what it is, and what it can achieve. There isn’t yet an industry standard for SDN. Although there are emerging standards bodies (like ONF and OpenDaylight) and pseudo standards (like OpenFlow and OpenStack), there are still fundamentally different approaches depending on whether your selected vendor favours a ‘hardware-up’ or ‘software-down’ approach. The next challenge is to become skilled across a variety of solution sets and then helping customers to forget the hype and allow their business goals and company scale to determine the right solution for them. There’s no “one size fits all”.
5. What is driving the shift to a software-defined approach?
Mobility, Cloud services, Big Data analytics and the growing importance of social media are the key drivers in the shift towards a software-defined approach. The result of all this is that both customers and staff within a business are massively changing network consumption patterns. It’s now anytime, anywhere, any device, using any app with data from any location. It’s a new paradigm that traditional static networks simply cannot cope with. It would require a level of “over engineering” that wouldn’t just be cost prohibitive, it would require a level of routing complexity that would be impossible to maintain.
To manage these constantly changing workloads, networks must tune themselves in real-time based on a set of business, rather than routing, rules. The ability to virtualise and orchestrate the network provides massive benefits to business by simplifying, reducing cost and providing real-time business agility. With SDN you could, for example, add or remove compute capacity (including all the network programming) through a drag and drop interface. At the same time you can introduce higher levels of security through micro-segmentation and get the true benefits of autonomic and utility computing.
Finally, I believe SDN will be key to getting the true benefits of digital disruption as well as the very quickly emerging benefits of the Internet of Everything.