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4 steps for a smooth SDN installation

Software-defined infrastructure can be tricky to implement. Automation, vendor-supported hardware and skilled developers are essential for smooth updates.

Software-defined networking allows organizations to drive more automation and programmability into the network, which can simplify management.

Even with adoption concerns, organizations have a great need for network orchestration, and the basic concept of software-defined networking (SDN) is sound -- especially for shops that use virtualization, cloud, containers or microservices.

The case for automation is more compelling with these use cases, because manual management via command-line interface (CLI) quickly becomes impractical. That's especially true as vendors build artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities in their software and enable networks to become even more automated with self-healing and self-learning.

"What folks are trying to do is improve agility. They need to get their time to make changes in the network from days or weeks to hours or minutes and be far more responsive to the digital business, and they want to improve availability and reliability," said Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

Typically, he explained, when admins try to make a change in their network, they end up with an outage because of complexity and the dominance of old command-line-based practices. To avoid such disturbances, consider these four SDN installation factors.

Automation versus network technology

To select the best management or automation tools, an admin's choice should be tuned to what compute environment will support the SDN installation.

For example, a Linux DevOps shop would look for the ability to integrate Chef or Puppet. This ensures admins can set up the networking architecture and the automation software has the right capabilities and compatibility.  

"What we tell people interested in SDN -- and it makes the network guys' heads explode -- is to pick your automation environment first, not your network vendor. Then, evaluate the network vendors on how they fit into that automation environment," Skorupa said.

Testing capabilities during SDN installation

Testing is essential anytime admins deploy new technology in the data center, usually with small proofs of concept and maturing into pilots covering a defined area. Given that SDN enables greater levels of automation, "I would expect that organizations will want to be comfortable with the technology prior to a full-scale rollout," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst and practice director at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass.

Large technology refreshes are often done in stages to eliminate downtime.

"Hyperscale data centers have worked diligently to ensure upgrades and new technology can be refreshed without any downtime," he said. This means testing protocols likely depend on the data center setup and the extent of the redundancy.

In Skorupa's view, however, redundancy is where most existing networks are brittle. Making changes, including an SDN installation, is risky.

"To succeed with SDN, you really need to go back and understand every server and all your data," he said.

This can easily require 150 person-hours per server. If it is feasible, the organization can employ third-party services to audit data, or use data center infrastructure management software with automation.

Hardware compatibility

Which hardware an organization needs for an SDN installation largely depends on the vendor the organization is working with, such as Cisco or Hewlett Packard Enterprise. These needs range from chassis-based options to white boxes.

"The key is that SDN still requires hardware, but that the emphasis is now much more on the software side," Laliberte said. "Many vendor network hardware runs on merchant silicon," he said.

Organizations should understand what they are buying and its purpose in the data center to avoid wasting money on unnecessary hardware.

Laliberte also recommended asking for vendor references for like-size environments, so admins "can try to learn from those organizations that have already deployed so as not to repeat any mistakes they may have made."

Team programming proficiency

In the transition to SDN, the network team needs to think about adding new skills to their portfolio -- namely programming capabilities.

"Probably the most well-known [training resource] is DevNet from Cisco," Laliberte said.

Organizations should invest in training their employees on SDN installation and upkeep -- especially the programmability aspects -- to help drive further operational simplicity. Before working with SDN, IT managers should assess team member skill levels and figure out what training gaps exist.

The programmability helps drive automation through what is sometimes called infrastructure as code. The net result is instead of using the CLI to complete tasks, network admins can eventually program the network and automate more functions.

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