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How to assess the benefits of SDN in your network

Find out what three networking problems the benefits of SDN could address in your network and the questions you should ask to make sure you're on the right track.

Software-defined networking has matured from a science experiment into deployable, enterprise-ready technology in the last several years, with vendors from Big Switch Networks and Pica8 to Hewlett Packard Enterprise and VMware offering services for different use cases. Still, Nemertes Research's 2016 Cloud and Data Center Benchmark survey found a little more than 9% of organizations now deploying SDN in production.

In terms of the benefits of SDN, let's look at three of the most important problems the technology can solve, along with some considerations you can use to decide how SDN could help you.

More intelligent access. One of the main benefits of SDN technologies is to help you make the access edge of your branch and campus networks more intelligent for both security and performance management. For example, SDN can simultaneously provide a platform for network access control and for dynamically applied optimization of unified communications sessions that include voice, collaboration and video.

In network architectures not determined by cabling, network functions can be applied when and where they are needed.

Network virtualization. One of the key pillars and expected benefits of SDN is the ability to virtualize the network -- or, in other words, to overlay one or more logically separate networks on top of the single physical one. As a result, in network architectures not determined by cabling, network functions can be applied when and where they are needed.  Virtual networks provide the basis for microsegmentation as a security strategy in the data center. They can also be a part of an intelligent access layer by recognizing a video phone when it is plugged in and assigning it to a specific virtual network for performance management, for example.

Data center network automation. For many IT shops, the data center network continues to be the sticking point in fast deployment of new services, products and virtual infrastructure. One of the benefits of SDN is to help make the network more directly scriptable by using APIs for the product or service.

Questions to help you determine the benefits of SDN

So, is it time for you to look at SDN? Consider the answers to the following questions as you go through the decision-making process.

  • Is the relevant network -- access edge, data center or both -- ready for SDN as is? In other words, is your network gear of relatively recent enough vintage that it can be a part of an OpenFlow-based software-defined network?
  • If not, is it time for a refresh? If the answer is yes, you can make SDN a key criterion in the decision about what to replace it with.
  • If it's not refresh time, is the problem you face acute enough to justify a replacement outside of the regular refresh cycle? You can also consider overlaying an SDN infrastructure selectively, adding the necessary gear only where it is needed most urgently and expanding from there.
  • Can your vendor or provider give you a validated architecture or blueprint for deployment that addresses your specific requirements?
  • Can your vendor give you references to people in other organizations who have done what you want to do, or who have done something similar enough that their experience can serve as a guidepost?
  • Can you carve off a meaningful piece of the problem to solve in a pilot deployment with minimal investment of equipment and time? You shouldn't have to make an all-or-nothing transition to a new platform without a chance to test in place that it can work for you.
  • Do you have a robust change management process? You need one when you make a fundamental shift in technology.
  • If you are aiming to address a data center issue, especially in support of microsegmentation, do you have solid relationship mapping information for the systems there? That is, do you understand fully the relationships among the systems to which you are seeking to apply microsegmentation? Early adopters in the space have repeatedly told Nemertes their projects slowed down dramatically when they realized how incomplete their knowledge was about which systems really needed to talk to each other.  It isn't hard to find out which ones are talking to each other. It's much harder to know which ones should be talking to each other.

Nemertes has been saying for a of couple years now that all network acquisitions should be made with eventual SDN deployment in mind. Now is the time to start identifying what the first steps in that deployment should be and whether the time has come to begin looking at the benefits of SDN for your organization.

Next Steps

Three SDN models to assess; which one is for you?

Check out the guide to evolving SDN use cases

Why do you need SDN technology?

This was last published in October 2016

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