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SDN implementation to rise by 2016, but hurdles remain

In separate surveys, Infonetics Research and Juniper find enterprises are ready to adopt SDN, but wholesale rip-and-replace is a long way off.

SDN implementation will spread to the vast majority of enterprises over the next two years, but most companies won't go all in. Barriers to broad and deep SDN adoption remain and traditional networking vendors will need to solve them fast if they want to stay relevant.

New SDN adoption statistics from Infonetics Research show that a large number of North American enterprises are ready to adopt SDN. More importantly, many of them are looking beyond their traditional networking vendors for SDN applications and orchestration software, which could shift network decision-making within IT organizations.

Infonetics also found that network equipment commoditization has also started in earnest, with a significant number of data center switch ports already on bare-metal switches.

Nearly half of enterprises will have a production SDN implementation in 2015

Infonetics Research's "2014 SDN Strategies: North American Enterprise Survey" found that 45% of enterprises will have SDN live in production in their data centers in 2015, and it will rise to 87% in 2016. The statistics are based on a survey of 101 IT decision-makers at medium- and large-sized enterprises. The survey did not distinguish between enterprises that are adopting SDN overlays versus those that are adopting hardware-centric SDN.

SDN implementation isn't confined to the data center, either. Enterprise LAN and data center SDN adoption are proceeding at nearly the exact same pace, said Cliff Grossner, directing analyst at Infonetics.

"The top use cases in the data center are a move to a cloud data center, automated provisioning and automated disaster recovery. Enterprises have a firm handle on the use cases they are attacking with SDN adoption," Grossner said. "The top use cases for the enterprise LAN are the unification of wired and wireless LAN, automated provisioning again and BYOD [bring your own device]. Enterprises' are driving toward -- and implementing -- these use cases because they want improved management, improved application performance and improved security."

Juniper Networks Inc. found similar SDN enthusiasm in a separate survey of 400 IT leaders, with 52.5% saying they plan to adopt SDN. Of those who will implement SDN, 74% plan to adopt within twelve months. On the flip side, the other 47% of companies in Juniper's survey had no plans to try SDN, offering a pessimistic counterpoint to Infonetics' more robust SDN implementation numbers.

"There's a good chunk of the market that's just not there yet from a planning perspective," said Mike Marcellin, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for Juniper.

"For me, SDN surveys are what you want to make of them," said Lee Doyle, principal analyst for Doyle Research. "I think SDN is real and it's going to happen. But it's going to take a while, and we don't yet know how it's going to pan out."

SDN erodes influence of traditional networking vendors (and networking pros)

Infonetics surveyed enterprises about the vendors they will turn to for SDN products, Grossner said. A large majority of companies (77%) will turn to their existing networking vendors for their SDN hardware (switches and routers), and most (63%) will go to them for controllers, too. However, enterprises are far more willing to look elsewhere for SDN applications and orchestration software.

Only 55% of enterprises will rely on their existing networking vendors to supply SDN applications, while 23% of them will look to their virtualization vendor, 11% will consider a third-party SDN vendor and 10% will look to an open source vendor. 

Orchestration software is even more challenging for the traditional networking vendors. Only 46% of companies will go to them for orchestration, while 23% intend to look to SDN vendors and 17% plan to pursue open source vendors.

"They're going to look beyond their traditional network vendors for orchestration and SDN applications," Grossner said. "I think the battleground for the data center is going to be the orchestration platform. The company that provides that is going to be in the control seat for many of the other purchasing decisions that will happen in the data center."

But another battleground is also opening on the hardware side. Infonetics' survey revealed that 17% of respondents' data center Ethernet ports are on bare-metal switches.

"The market is taking a good hard look at alternate forms of building networks," Grossner said. "They're certainly looking at the server model [for switches], where software and hardware is bought separately."

Enterprises aren't leaning into bare-metal switches to save on capital expenses, Grossner said. "I believe that the desire to go to bare-metal is as much for automation and the ability to hook into their [own] orchestration systems, as it is for CapEx savings," he said.  

The combination of automation and orchestration with bare-metal switches also threatens to reduce the influence of networking teams in data centers.

Grossner recently talked to one data center operator that has adopted bare-metal switches to connect many of its hundreds of thousands of servers. "I asked them, 'How many network admins do you have?' They said they don't have any. They said, 'We wrote all our own software and our IT guys were able to learn enough networking to integrate it in.' IT basically manages its switches like it manages its servers. That use case definitely has a part to play in the future."

Challenges remain before SDN fans pop Champagne corks

SDN adoption may be getting broad, but it isn't necessarily deep. Traditional network architecture remains dominant.

"When enterprises say they will roll SDN out into production, it doesn't mean everything on the network is SDN," Grossner said. "It means they're rolling it out in a small portion of the network and they will go from there. If you look at the overall switching market in 2013, the actual percent of all switches deployed in data centers and enterprise[s] in use for SDN would be just a few."

Barriers to SDN implementation also remain in place. Many enterprises worry about the potential interruption of critical network operations if they deploy SDN widely, he said. They are also uncertain about SDN's ability to interoperate with their existing network equipment and their existing management systems.

Those concerns "all speak to a lack of belief in the maturity of the technology," Grossner said. "What we need to see now is some demonstrable and documented successes with SDN."

Juniper's recent SDN adoption survey found some other inhibitors to SDN adoption, Marcellin said.

"The first challenge [identified in the Juniper survey] is cost," Marcellin said. "IT departments don't have unlimited budgets, and SDN in some ways is always going to be [an added cost] on top of the existing budget."

Juniper found integration with existing infrastructure and security of new SDN technologies also concerned SDN adopters. Finally, IT teams worried about SDN expertise, Marcellin said.

"We spend a good bit of time with customers, just talking about [the SDN skills] issue and helping them understand how they need to evolve organizationally," Marcellin said. "We've done a lot of work with our partners to assure that we are enabling networking pros to understand what might be required going forward, whether it's writing Perl scripts, working with Puppet or working with fundamental SDN protocols and overlay technologies."

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