Software-Defined Networking: Not Just For Datacenters Anymore

By Patrick Moorhead, John Fruehe - October 20, 2016
Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization have promised to revolutionize the datacenter. SDN breaks the tight connection between the forwarding plane (moving data from point A to point B) and the control plane (the rules that dictate how applications and users access data), while NFV virtualizes those hard-coded functions that used to be delivered by physical appliances. Businesses need to move faster, and SDN / NFV can help speed up business velocity, reducing the lag between IT requests and actual production readiness, increasing agility. But to do this, networking needs to change, from the old paradigm of large, vertical and tightly integrated solutions towards modern, distributed and more easily managed systems. It is no surprise that this change in the datacenter is being driven by open source challengers like OpenDaylight, OPNFV or ONOS, because innovation rarely comes from incumbents protecting their share. SDN / NFV have primarily been tools for IT to help automate and modernize the datacenter, but the “software definition-ization” is starting to show up all over the network now, not just in the datacenter. This trend promises to move us from the unresponsive in-demand world where users are always waiting to an on-demand world where users are better served at the speed of business. Just as the datacenter has changed, network connections outside of the datacenter are changing in reaction to this demand for IT to shape its offering to better align with the needs of the business. The wide area network (WAN), which connects branch offices to headquarters or serves as a connection to cloud services, was the lowest hanging fruit for IT to tackle. Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) is running at a good clip with more than 70% of the customers in the spring Open Networking User Group (ONUG) meeting already engaged in a pilot or in production. Clearly the benefits of software definition in terms of flexibility and agility are overpowering the slower moving proprietary products. Companies like Glue Networks, Riverbed, Silver Peak, VeloCloud and Viptela are all staking their claim in this space, each with a slightly nuanced approach to SD-WAN in an area that is large enough for multiple vendors to compete profitably. Coming up quickly is Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi has been a fixture in corporate environments for years, but the typical complaint was that your Wi-Fi at home was faster than in the office. At home, an access point and controller are a single unit, so replacement to faster technologies was fast and relatively inexpensive. In businesses the access points are strewn throughout the campus with centralized (expensive and proprietary) controllers that were tightly linked to these access points. Upgrading is difficult, expensive and time consuming, but this is changing. The linkage between access points and controllers is becoming less stringent, allowing for customers to choose different APs and controllers, even moving their controller to the cloud for convenience. Companies like Aerohive, Cisco Systems (Meraki), Hewlett Packard Enterprise Aruba, Mojo Networks and Ruckus Networks are changing the way that Wi-Fi is delivered. More importantly, all are adding location / proximity to their platforms, enabling, for instance, a retail business to better track its customers and provide more customer-optimized experiences. Because of these capabilities and the experiential features, suddenly the demand for new / better WiFi is often coming from the CMO instead of the CIO. Look for SD-WiFi to become the next new phrase, especially in businesses looking to maximize their customer engagement. In addition to Wi-Fi, software definition is coming to the local area network (LAN) as well, especially to the campus networks were business changes are often difficult for IT to manage. By moving from more “hard-wired” infrastructures to those that that are software-defined and more flexible, changes to the campus network can now match the pace of change in the business. Workgroups can change quickly, the network and applications can morph to match changing conditions and IT can manage access and data closer to the users that need it. Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures can have a dramatic impact on campus computing as IT struggles to react to these business changes. Moving from a more hard-coded to a software-defined management structure will enable IT to match the changing needs of the business. The idea of an SD-LAN would encompass both the wired and wireless infrastructures (a wider definition of SD-WiFi that we discussed above). We have written about this convergence in the past and see it as a growing trend in the market. Aerohive was the first company that I had heard using the SD-LAN moniker, but it genuinely encompasses what is starting to happen in the campus networks, so expect to hear more of that over time. The key to all of this are the business drivers. I have often said that servers and storage were “easy” to deal with because they are endpoints, where networking is a mesh that connects everything together. When you change an endpoint, you might create a problem, but when you change the mesh you can create hundreds or thousands of problems. Which is why businesses are loathe to change networking strategies. But the need to drive more efficient and agile businesses is creating a pull on IT to start responding to the business needs with a more flexible, software-defined approach in order to enable the company to better respond to changing market needs. It truly is an exciting time to be in networking, but only if you are embracing change in networking. The old-school network leaders like Cisco, Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent are trying to figure out where they live in this new world.
Patrick Moorhead

Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.

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