This content is part of the Essential Guide: SDN use cases emerge across the LAN, WAN and data center

Adolescent SDN technologies still too immature for cloud providers

Cloud providers are evaluating SDN technologies, but many believe the fluctuating market and products are not ready for production environments.

Software-defined networking has gained considerable interest among cloud providers. That's because the ability to shape and change traffic on the fly in a complex, multi-tenant infrastructure could allow them to become much more efficient and flexible in their ability to manage traffic flows.

While many cloud providers agree that software-defined networking (SDN) holds promise, SDN technologies may not be baked enough for their production environments, according to a recent TechTarget survey of more than 200 service providers. Although 43% of respondents indicated they plan to evaluate SDN technologies over the next 12 months, 78% believe SDN isn't mature enough for their environments today.

SDN offers providers more flexibility, room to grow

The SDN market is still in flux, with each vendor releasing its own flavor of SDN. Nearly 72% of respondents in SearchCloudProvider's Spring 2013 Purchasing Intentions survey said traditional networking vendors are behind in terms of SDN product rollouts, and 70% believe these vendors don't have enough service provider customers yet.

It's fair to say that SDN is not ready for complete, mainstream deployment.

Paul Parker-Johnson,
practice lead for cloud computing and virtual infrastructure technologies, ACG Research

But SDN is becoming especially relevant for cloud providers, as it has the most benefit in hyper-scale environments, said Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"The more application workloads running and the more virtual workloads that have to be dealt with are making large service providers realize the network has become something of an inhibitor," he said. "The network cannot move with the agility needed to support all those workloads."

While many cloud providers might only be evaluating SDN or testing it in their labs, a small group of providers are already embracing SDN as part of their network programmability strategy. This includes NTT America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the global telecommunications provider, NTT Communications and CloudSigma, a Swiss Infrastructure as a Service provider.

CloudSigma recently announced CloudSigma 2.0, its updated public cloud that offers all-solid-state drive storage and SDN support for hybrid clouds. SDN allows the provider to quickly respond to its customers' changing requirements, and enables customers to easily scale out their infrastructure, said Bernino Lind, chief operating officer of CloudSigma.

Customers grappling with big data -- like those in the media and financial services industries -- have already started seeking out providers using SDN technologies because an SDN-enabled network can also help providers guarantee more reliable services, Lind said.

"Cloud providers oftentimes have trouble guaranteeing to a customer that their applications will be able to run as efficiently as [they] might in the enterprise's own data center," he said. CloudSigma can avoid common cloud network bottlenecks that can plague providers, thanks to its dynamic, SDN-enabled network.

Are SDN technologies too immature, or are providers not ready?

Emerging technology and new approaches to networking can be daunting for any IT team. The Purchasing Intentions survey found that 65% of providers believe they don't have the on-staff expertise necessary to deploy and manage SDN technologies.

More on SDN technologies

Where do network fabric and SDN technologies intersect?

Cloud providers weigh-in on their SDN plans

SDN technologies primer: Revolution or evolution in architecture?

While not every provider will be staffed with engineers that have the same caliber of development and cloud architecture skills that companies like Google and Facebook can attract, smaller providers and cloud startups can still start to experiment with SDN safely, IDC's Casemore said.

"There are plenty [of SDN technologies]available for providers to begin investigating and working with on a trial basis … like in a development and testing environment for new applications, working with things like OpenFlow, or SDN controllers tied to OpenFlow switches," he said.

As providers roll out SDN, deployments will match each provider's individual needs, said Paul Parker-Johnson, practice lead for cloud computing and virtual infrastructure technologies at ACG Research. "It's fair to say that SDN is not ready for complete, mainstream deployment. It's the kind of thing to be very targeted and thoughtful about where to get started."

SDN isn't the only way to establish a programmable network, and the fluctuating SDN market has made some cloud providers question the value of SDN technologies.

"No vendor can say right now, 'Buy this SDN service and make your cloud better,'" Parker-Johnson said. "I think in two or three years from now, the folks who take advantage of SDN will have logic built into their control layers, but it's not quite there yet."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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Nice article. There are some early pioneers among cloud service providers using SDN, giving them significant differentiation versus their competitors. Their customers gain flexibility and control over network configurations (& sometimes more). By the time the majority of cloud providers feel SDN is ready (via vendor provided solutions rather than self-development) it won't be much of a differentiator. Long story short, SDN technology is "ready enough" for early pioneers seeking differentiation -- though much more work and expertise is required to deploy and manage it.