Nothing short of transformation: the IP EXPO 2013 Panel Debate on SDN

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Most IT teams are still some years off from implementing software-defined networking (SDN) in their own environments, but levels of interest are high and they’re starting to explore their options, according to a show of hands at the IP EXPO 2013 panel debate on SDN, ‘Network Transformation and SDN’, led by Canalys chief analyst Puni Rajah.

Early adopters of the technology tend to come from the telco, ISP and cloud hosting spaces, agreed panellists Brad Brooks from Juniper, David Chalmers of HP and Nick Williams of Brocade - but mainstream organisations need to start thinking about how they might use a software overlay to virtualise their existing network infrastructure. Or, as Chalmers, who is vice president and chief technologist of HP’s Enterprise Group in EMEA, said: “Get on the bus now, because it’s just about to leave.”

That doesn’t mean that any organisation, regardless of sector, needs to be prepare for a wholesale, rip-and-replace project as they move towards SDN. Existing networking infrastructure investments should be protected, said Brooks, who is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Juniper. “Unless someone comes up with quantum networking, then [organisations are] still going to need the physical links that already exist in their networks,” he joked.

In other words, for most organisations, the implementation of SDN will be more of an incremental process, as disparate networking elements are integrated with that new software layer, most likely in support of specific business processes. At Brocade, said Williams, who is senior product manager for EMEA Data Centre IP at the company, executives are hearing “even mainstream businesses" asking more and more about how they might start to think about policy-based programmatic control for their networks and also how they might tackle orchestration.”

When asked how they felt the standards behind SDN were evolving, opinions were more mixed. No-one on the panel doubted that these were necessary. After all, said Chalmers, “networking is the last great bastion of proprietary technology in the IT industry and the area that has perhaps improved least in the last 20 years.”

But Brooks was keen to point out that “OpenFlow is not SDN.” Other standards will be just as important to SDN in its early years, if not more so, he said. These include BGP [Border Gateway Protocol], MPLS [Multiprotocol Label Switching] and XMPP [Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol]. “Becoming reliant on just one standard could be very dangerous,” said Brooks.

There was hope among the three experts that earlier lessons, learnt during challenging server and storage virtualisation projects might be valuable when it comes to virtualising networks - but only if IT professionals are able to break down the barriers within their own departments and start talking to each other. In a new age of more virtualised IT and more converged infrastructure stacks, specialism in networking, or servers, or storage will be a good deal less valuable in IT staff than multi-discipline expertise.

“Being more cross-functional within the IT department itself is the only way we get there [to SDN],” said Chalmers. “Some people are comfortable with that, some are not. But it’s the only way forwards - talking to each other.”

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