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2016 SDN trends: The year of the software-defined WAN

As 2016 draws to a close, SD-WAN paced SDN trends as it permeated the SDN world; Cisco and VMware dominated SDN deployments; and concerns remain about training.

In 2015, the networking world was abuzz about software-defined WAN and its potential. The buzz remained -- and perhaps intensified -- throughout 2016, as more enterprises deployed SD-WAN technology and the potential became reality.

It comes as little surprise, then, that SD-WAN was a consistent and popular topic in SearchSDN's news and commentary throughout the year. Other percolating software-defined networking (SDN) trends were open source SDN, Cisco ACI versus VMware NSX, DevOps and training for the software-defined future. Here's a glimpse into some of the SDN trends we covered throughout 2016.

SD-WAN takes the virtual cake

SD-WAN made substantial inroads in 2016. While the technology had previously been considered immature and untested, its potential benefits compelled many enterprises to begin implementing the technology this year. By 2020, according to Gartner, almost a third of enterprises will have some form of SD-WAN technology in operation.

At the same time, SD-WAN vendors and service providers made market moves of their own. SearchSDN was peppered with announcements about service providers teaming with vendors to offer managed SD-WAN services. CenturyLink, EarthLink and AT&T, among others, all unveiled SD-WAN services, while Viptela and CA Technologies combined their SD-WAN and network performance management services in a single offering.

SD-WAN's growth was also propelled, in part, by its affinity with SDN. Each separates the control plane from the data plane -- or the brains from the muscle -- and each improves network flexibility and scalability. To that extent, enterprises considered SD-WAN as a trial run for implementing SDN, allowing them to ease into a software-defined alternative in an area they're familiar with and can more easily monitor and manage -- the WAN.

As WAN requirements change, it's important for enterprises to look into SD-WAN technology, said Jim Metzler, founder and vice president at Ashton, Metzler & Associates, based in Sanibel, Fla. Although SD-WAN may not be the right fit for every WAN, enterprises should be aware of available options and developments, he said.

Cisco and VMware at the SDN forefront

2016 also saw the continuing maturation of Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) and VMware's NSX. Cisco said more than 2,700 companies are now using ACI, while VMware counts more than 1,900 companies using its software.

These SDN approaches greatly differ. Cisco ACI is grounded in Cisco's Nexus 9000 switches, while VMware NSX is based solely in software. That said, many enterprises have deployed a mixture of Cisco ACI and VMware NSX, even as they address compatibility issues between the two.

Cisco and VMware both took steps to upgrade their products, with Cisco readying ACI to support container orchestration in the cloud, as well as beefing up the capabilities of its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller. VMware, meanwhile, struck a deal with Amazon Web Services to enable an NSX-anchored hybrid cloud. It also moved to improve the software's microsegmentation capabilities with its acquisition of analytics vendor Arkin Net Inc. in June.

DevOps and training for SDN

The networking industry's evolution has left many engineers, students and potential employees questioning where they fit into the equation. By its very nature, SDN blurs the lines between engineering and programming, compelling departments to work together and network engineers to work in new or unfamiliar areas. As a result, 2016 saw increased interest in development and operations (DevOps) combined with SDN.

These changes in networking correlated with an overarching concern about training and learning. To that end, SearchSDN experts discussed which programming languages network engineers should know as they become familiar with SDN. The consensus: Python gets high marks for its versatility. As for students interested in a career in networking, experts urged them to learn SDN in school.

On the SDN horizon

Open source SDN remained one of the most important SDN trends throughout 2016. Open source initiatives seek to advance SDN development, using collaboration and interoperability in the development of standards, policies and APIs. Groups like the Open Networking Foundation and the Open Networking User Group continued their work to advance SDN.

This year, AT&T announced its open source platform -- Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy -- which urged the developer community to contribute code. Verizon has also taken on an open SDN architecture, which is more focused toward vendors, wrote Tom Nolle, CIMI Corp. president and a SearchSDN contributor, in his blog.

Throughout the year, white box switching continued to attract attention. Proponents tout the commodity devices for their ability to reduce cost and avoid vendor lock-in, even as they maintain speed and performance targets. Yet concerns remain. For most enterprises, deciding whether to deploy white box switching will depend upon their specific needs.

Finally, enterprises took 2016 to begin assessing SDN in the LAN. The potential is there, according to John Burke, principal research analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

"I'm not sure where [SDN in the LAN] is going to start -- whether it will be in retail, higher education or hospitality," Burke said. "But some vertical is going to start moving that way. There will be a couple success stories and then peers will make the transition. It will never dominate, but I think it will become a large and persistent thing."

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