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Are you ready for an SDN deployment?

The principal motivation behind SDN deployments is the need for a responsive and nimble IT organization. While the network architecture is definitely in the future, not all are ready for it.

Software-defined networking (SDN) is still discussed as if it's the secret sauce of the Internet. This despite...

Gartner placing it at the bottom of its Networking Hype Cycle due to "SDN fatigue" and the technology's failure, thus far, to gain much traction in the enterprise.

However, the magical SDN unicorn still manages to rear its head in strategy meetings under the new guise of hyper-convergence and the software-defined data center (SDDC). This is probably due to IT leadership's continued yearning for cost savings, improved security and the achievement of a truly agile organization. But is SDN, with its added complexity and startling licensing costs, really the answer?

While the benefits of SDN deployments and the SDDC are tempting, they also introduce new challenges. Before dipping your toes into the SDN pool, some key points need to be addressed. 

What percentage of time is your IT organization focused on KTLO, keeping the lights on? If you're already struggling to meet new requests from the business, your staff doesn’t have the spare cycles to deal with the new set of problems you'll get with SDN.

But you may ask: 'Won't SDN make us more efficient?' Maybe, but it's going to take you some time to get there.

But you may ask: "Won't SDN deployments make us more efficient?" Maybe, but it's going to take you some time to get there. And unless you're building a greenfield data center, don’t assume it's going to be a flash cut. Even in the most virtualized enterprise there's always brownfield entrenched somewhere.

Overcoming your old virtualized environment

This brings up another point: How "legacy" is your legacy environment? If the duct tape used to kludge things together is from the last century, then you might be in trouble. Most likely you'll be running parallel environments for quite a while as you wait for the mainframe or other bare metal to float away to that great data center in the sky. Criticize Gartner's bimodal IT strategy all you want, the reality is most organizations will need these two ecosystems to be integrated while a long-term architectural strategy is being refined.

What's the health of your current virtualized environment?  If it's an outdated mess, then you're going to have just as many problems achieving hyper-convergence -- maybe more -- than those arising from the incorporation of a physical infrastructure. Moreover, if you aren't already leveraging some of the automation and self-service capabilities offered by virtualization in your architecture, then you probably shouldn't jump to a major undertaking of SDN deployments. These two factors are the main drivers behind taking on the cost and complexity of an SDDC. If your organization is dedicated to going down this road, then you should start with a phased approach that includes upgrading your existing infrastructure to support more network functions virtualization and testing automation features.

Do you have the right staff in your organization to manage and troubleshoot an SDN infrastructure? You'll need some generalists: network staffers who understand virtualization and systems people who speak networking. If your organization is siloed and these two teams report to different people or don't collaborate well, then SDN deployments probably won't succeed in your enterprise. The first time there's a routing issue in the SDDC, the network team might choose to watch as the virtualization administrators drown.

Gauging if an SDN shift is too drastic

Additionally, hyper-convergence doesn't work unless the organization understands and is committed to the DevOps mindset of continuous integration and deployment. Attempting to implement SDN or an SDDC in an enterprise entrenched in ITIL practices could turn into a religious war unless you have a majority of leadership and staff ready to apply the philosophy. Otherwise, how will you achieve infrastructure as code?

The principal motivation behind SDN deployments and hyper-convergence is the need for a responsive and nimble IT organization. While it's definitely the future, not all are ready for it. The shift can be too drastic for enterprises still struggling with the basics of managing an efficient infrastructure. Are you saddled with technical debt? Could your policies, standards and procedures use work? Do you have staffing challenges? The first steps toward deploying an SDN or SDDC strategy should include a phased design, with an analysis of the current environment addressing any gaps that are barriers to the future road map.

Most importantly, resist the lure of the bright, shiny new toy and consider what will best serve your organization. It's okay to be impressed by new technology, but ask yourself if you need that Ferrari when a Honda might get you where you need to go more reliably, albeit with a little less flare. 

Next Steps

Weighing SDN deployments

Considering SDN for IoT

Overcoming DIY in SDN

This was last published in December 2015

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