Software Defined Networking Is Going Mainstream - Really

Software Defined Networking Is Going Mainstream - Really

By Mike Frane, VP, Product Management, Windstream Enterprise

Mike Frane, VP, Product Management, Windstream Enterprise

If you have sufficient gray in your hair, you were probably introduced to data networking through an enterprise LAN, an innovation connecting computing devices among collocated workgroups. If you came to enterprise networking a bit later, your networking introduction may have included a WAN that covered a distributed enterprise by connecting LANs though public networks or leased lines.

"Interestingly, SD-WAN adoption is gaining traction among single-site, single-access customers just as briskly as among their larger counterparts"

The old LAN/WAN model was the networking standard for decades – until enterprise needs for cloud computing, cost-effective bandwidth and maximum uptime brought that model to the end of its suitability. We’re now seeing the rise of software defined networks (SDN) and software defined WANs (SD-WAN). The concept of SDN was born out of a need to simplify and automate complex LAN environments – notably in data centers, cloud computing centers, service provider core networks and expansive enterprise LANs. SD-WAN technologies build on the same core tenets of simplicity, resiliency and automation and apply those concepts to the WAN.

The SDN/SD-WAN advantage

The primary difference between software-defined and traditional networking is that SDN and SD-WAN are directly programmable, built on a centrally managed platform that separates the control plane, where decisions are made from the data plane about traffic routing, which determines how traffic is forwarded. This enables software to assume responsibility for network control, increasing network management flexibility, scalability and agility.

This in turn enables SDN and SD-WAN to better address current and emerging needs for on-demand access to multiple databases and servers simultaneously, and to accommodate the fast-growing need for mobile connectivity. SD-WAN offers additional advantages by supporting enterprise cloud computing, with far superior visibility and control of networks and applications, delivering more bandwidth at lower cost by enabling highly available broadband to supplement existing access connections, and ensuring up to 100 percent uptime through active/active configurations.

These advantages are driving software-defined networking toward the enterprise mainstream, with a noticeable split between SDN and SD-WAN.

Adoption rates show divergent trends

In Gartner’s 2017 report on SDN, analysts noted that while SDN had generated a tremendous amount of interest among enterprises, it was failing to gain traction, with total deployments estimated at less than 2,000 worldwide. “SDN started as a new technical architecture,” Gartner reported, “but brought into light some valuable concepts that outlived the original blueprint.”

Those valuable concepts found a home in SD-WAN. Focusing separately on SD-WAN, a Gartner analyst recently wrote, “In just three short years, adoption has taken off and we now estimate 6,000+ paying SD-WAN customers with more than 4,000 production implementations. We recommend you look at SD-WAN when refreshing WAN edge equipment, renegotiating a carrier contract, building out new branches, or aggressively moving apps to the cloud (among other reasons).”

Software-defined networks moving forward

Interestingly, SD-WAN adoption is gaining traction among single-site, single-access customers just as briskly as among their larger counterparts. While the argument for SD-WAN often focuses on its ability to knit together multi-location enterprises, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are clearly seeing an advantage in SD-WAN’s ability to support overall cloud strategies. We are currently experiencing healthy, ongoing adoption across enterprises of all sizes.

To accelerate adoption among these enterprises, we can expect to see the emergence of “SD-WAN light” offerings that target SMBs. Not all those organizations need the full set of features and functions typically provided by current SD-WAN offerings, creating ample opportunity for standard offerings tailored to SMBs characterized by fewer extras, lower price tags and feature sets built around SMB-specific use cases.

For mid-market and larger enterprises, we can expect to see an acceleration of network function virtualization and “white box” or universal CPE. This is a matter of economics. As production numbers grow and the costs of software and hardware fall, it will make sense to deploy multiple network functions on commodity, white box CPE.

As a final major trend, we can expect to see more service chaining from cloud service providers and managed network service providers, deeper integrations with cloud applications, and greater incorporation of SD-WAN technologies into established hardware vendors’ mainline product portfolios. These will all be the result of both general acceptance of software-defined networking approaches and consolidation through M&A activity.

The transition is inevitable

The enterprise move to the cloud, the business need for more bandwidth at lower cost, and the operating need for 100 percent uptime pretty much ensure that tomorrow’s networks will be very different from those operated by most enterprises today. Moving in that direction will increasingly become a competitive necessity, central to satisfying the expectations of both internal and external customers.

While there has been much written about software-defined networking being more talk than action to date, adoption trends indicate that software-defined networking really is going mainstream. And it’s only natural that as companies learn more about SD-WAN and how it can boost business performance, increased adoption rates will follow. There was, after all, a time when WAN adoption came much more slowly than expected— and now it’s hard to imagine where we would have been all these years without it.

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