Is IT operational efficiency sexy enough to entice investment?

Technologies like unified communications and SDN promise IT operational efficiency as a return on investment, but that can be difficult to measure.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Network Evolution: Five trends changing the game for UC:

What do software-defined networking (SDN) and unified communications (UC) have in common?

Rivka Gerwitz Little That question sounds like the beginning of a bad joke -- or worse, a press release trying to convince us that SDN is the next UC game-changer. But it's neither. There is an important commonality in SDN and UC -- both are technologies that promise operational efficiency in return for hefty capital investment. But in both cases, that efficiency is not so easy to measure and prove -- they don't offer a clear return on investment. This makes it difficult to convince C-level execs to invest in these technologies.

What's more, both SDN and UC are constantly evolving, so it can be difficult for engineers and network managers to know which vendor strategy to trust -- or to know how long to wait for the technology to mature.

In this issue of Network Evolution, we look at important technology developments in both UC and SDN, and we explore the difficulty in deciphering when it's time to invest.

Nemertes Research vice president and service director Irwin Lazar outlines five UC technologies that will change the collaboration landscape. These applications and architectures range from mobile UC to WebRTC, which "democratizes collaboration" by letting users access voice and video from any Web browser. Most of the technologies Lazar highlights are still maturing and he even warns in one case that users will have to wait on investing until the technology evolves. But for some of the technologies -- video as a content sharing tool, for example -- there are already interesting offerings in the market.

Enterprises will have to gauge on their own whether they're willing to take a chance.

On the SDN front, contributor David Geer writes about the new programmable WAN, which relies on SDN technology to automate network provisioning based upon the needs of specific applications. Geer explains how Internet2, which runs a global 100 Gigabit SDN network for research and education organizations, aims to "put control of the network inside the application." That way, an application's developer can decide where the app runs on the network and how it is accessed.

That's all exciting, but in this same issue, network engineer and CIO Teren Bryson writes that the return on an SDN investment in terms of operational efficiency requires an extremely long wait. What's more, it's unclear whether this return will outweigh the capital expenditure necessary to re-architect a network for SDN.

Bryson warns network pros: "Consider how much you are willing to invest in order to realize the promise of SDN. For many, SDN is still a solution looking for a problem and won't produce the operational efficiencies touted by vendors any time soon."

One answer for both SDN and UC may be management and monitoring tools that better measure performance and therefore efficiency. In this issue, SearchNetworking.com editor Chuck Moozakis writes about applying application visibility and control tools to wireless networks in order to optimize performance. If these tools take off in the wireless industry, and improve performance in new WLAN architectures, it could be a sign that the ability to measure performance will encourage users to invest in innovative strategies.

In the meantime, at least UC technology has been around long enough that there are case studies that can help investors gauge success. At this point potential SDN buyers can only look toward the few market segments that are already putting the technology into action -- financial services, cloud providers and universities. Unfortunately those high performance sectors tend to differ greatly from other parts of the market.

As use cases emerge in both ground breaking UC and SDN we'll be there to bring you as much information as we can find.

About the author:
Rivka Gewirtz Little is the executive editor for TechTarget's Networking Media Group. She and the Network Media Group recently launched SearchSDN.com, a new site that covers software-defined networking and network programmability.

This was first published in October 2013

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