The software-defined network (SDN) has been one of the biggest networking topics of the past year or two. The trend promises unheard-of network agility, as well as simpler network management. Despite this, precious few enterprises (with the exception of web-scale organisations) are seriously utilising SDN. That said, trailblazing organisations have begun to experiment with SDN, and are already seeing significant returns on their operations. Is now the time to make a business case for SDN?
Certainly, there’s interest in the trend in the Middle East, but according to Samer Ismair, MENA network consultant at Brocade Communications, organisations are still at the early stages of the learning curve. Even among early adopters of SDN, he says, organisations are still working out the applications for this emerging technology.
“Early adopters of SDN are currently investigating a wide range of applications and use cases that include network virtualisation, large-scale data centre infrastructure management, traffic engineering, and wide area network (WAN) flow management. SDN is still at a conceptual stage in this region. The growth in the SDN market will be driven by companies working towards solving existing problems with networks – security, robustness and manageability and by innovating new revenue generating services on network infrastructures,” he says.
“Ultimately, the goal is to provide a highly flexible, cloud-optimised network solution that is scalable within the cloud. In our view, this ‘new’ network will be powered by fabric-based architectures, which provide the any-to-any connectivity critical to realising the full benefits of SDN. These include network virtualisation, programmatic control of the infrastructure, automation and dynamic configuration, on-demand service insertion and pay-per-use, all through standards-based software orchestration tools. Cloud service deployment will be faster, data centre management will be simpler and network operation will be easier.”
Indeed, these benefits are well understood — the problem that most organisations have is working out how to realise these benefits. After all, there’s no point in achieving simplified operations that drive savings if the initial up-front cost is too great. What’s more, despite everything that it promises, it’s generally accepted that some businesses simply won’t benefit from SDN. This means that a serious analysis of the trend needs to be conducted before taking it further.
“The Middle East’s current early adopters of software-defined technology are largely private sector organisations with cultures of innovation. But in the future, it is likely that many organisations will move more vigorously in this direction. SMEs will have an easier transition than large enterprises, as SMEs can more rapidly virtualise their business critical applications,” explains Savitha Bhaskar, COO of Condo Protego.
Indeed, according to Cherif Sleiman, general manager for the Middle East at Infoblox, to get the maximum benefit from SDN, it would be good to have an Ethernet fabric network architecture in place. He says that, while SDN promises to solve a number of challenges for modern virtualised data centres, it does add complexity of a different sort. Both physical and overlay networks will now need to be managed, and currently, without visibility of one another.
“In order to take full advantage of the advantages of overlay networks, automation of basic tasks in the physical network therefore becomes critical. Ethernet fabrics are an evolutionary form of Ethernet that provide a flatter, highly available network architecture with some degree of automation,” he says.
Brocade’s Ismair agrees. Indeed, he goes one step further by explaining that SDN can only be effective when deployed on fabric networks. He says that fabrics resolve all the issues of the legacy, three-tier architecture, to provide the road a super-charged SDN solution needs to operate at optimal levels. Without this, he says that SDN will still ‘work’, but it will take longer, cost more, create additional levels of complexity and won’t deliver the business benefits you might hope for.
“In traditional Ethernet networks running spanning tree protocol (STP), only 50% of the links are active while the rest act as backups in case the primary connection fails. Ethernet fabrics provide active always-on connectivity, an ideal basis for a software-defined network. Although fabrics work internally without STP, they manage to work with existing Ethernet networks and use STP instead of a self-aggregation of ISL connections between the connected ethernet fabric switches. Ethernet fabrics are self-monitoring and vendors now offer functionality for tracking health at the switch component level. In the event of an outage, links can be added or modified quickly and non-disruptively. This self-healing fabric approach doubles the utilisation of the entire network while improving resilience. It also allows IT architects to confidently increase the size of their Ethernet networks, which helps make virtual machine (VM) mobility much more feasible,“ he says.
“Some of the most demanding communication service providers in the world are already controlling their networks with Ethernet fabrics. For organisations looking for greater flexibility in their data centres, fabric network topology is essential. Compared to classic, hierarchical Ethernet architectures, Ethernet fabrics provide higher levels of performance, utilisation, availability, and simplicity.”
Indeed, some of these organisations are in the Middle East. According to Ashley Woodbridge, customer solutions architect, Cisco UAE, the telecoms sector is leading the way when it comes to SDN. He adds that some of these leading telecom service providers have been in the Middle East because this region is largely a ‘greenfield’ site.
“If you look at Cisco’s play on SDN, which is application-centric infrastructure (ACI), then some of our first deployments worldwide — and some of our largest — have been in the Middle East in the telecoms/service providers sector. For instance, du was the first telecom company in the world to deploy ACI for its next-generation data centre. We are also working on our largest ACI installation in the Middle East to date with Saudi Telecom Company (STC), which is building three data centre to accelerate and streamline cloud adoption in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he says.
“One of the benefits of the Middle East market is that it is a lot more ‘greenfield’ than other regions, with organisations not having large existing legacy investments that they need to protect. Conversely, organisations here are a lot more willing to adopt new technology than we see in other markets, as they are eager to leapfrog other businesses and reap the benefits. We are seeing explosive growth in interest for ACI and we see a lot of opportunities in the pipeline so this trend will definitely continue.”
Perhaps, though, it may be better for some orgnanisations to wait until the SDN market matures. In 10 or 15 years, the landscape may look very different, and SDN could very well be commonplace – just as server virtualisation is now. Indeed, according to Infoblox’s Sleiman, large-scale adoption of SDN could lead eventually to companies deploying ‘dumb’ hardware made smart by increasingly powerful networking software. For anyone on the fence, the emergence of such a situation could be the right time to get involved in SDN.
“So if we extrapolate that into the future world that we are heading into, the answer to whether companies will deploy ‘dumb’ hardware made smart by increasingly powerful networking software, is an emphatic yes. In fact a lot of that is a reality today. Virtualisation does exactly that. We are not buying mainframes or supercomputers. What we are doing is putting thousands of servers in racks and we use them as general purpose compute.”
Indeed, such a scenario is becoming increasingly compelling for a number of Middle Eastern organisations. According to Glen Ogden, regional sales director for the Middle East at A10 Networks, operators in every data centre today are looking at how they can better automate and orchestrate assets for competitive gain, and of course, SDN offers an answer. This means we can expect more companies in the region to deploy SDN architectures in the future.
“There is still some residual skepticism about what SDN means in practice, and whether it can deliver everything it promises. However the underlying premise of SDN appears compelling in terms of reducing equipment costs in the core, reduced complexity and improved control and transparency. Given the scale of some of the infrastructure in the Middle East, we would expect some of the larger service providers and enterprise customers to take the lead here first,” he says.