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Slowly building the preferred SDN strategy

Companies should adopt an SDN strategy that introduces software in manageable portions to avoid network disruptions.

Software-defined networking is the future, according to many experts. But deploying such radical technology for network operations should be done incrementally.

Experts at Interop last week agreed that SDN would greatly reduce the manual labor associated with network tasks, making it an eventual must-have for organizations. The remaining question, however, is how to get started.

The answer is to start small.

Software is available today for taking some network functions from hardware to software. Such applications, for example, can divvy up bandwidth to ensure adequate performance for unified communications or other latency-sensitive applications. Other tasks that can be done in software include traffic filtering and load balancing.

Why start small

Once we actually apply SDN in the real world it's going to look completely different from what it looks like on paper.
Tom Hollingsworthanalyst for Foskett Services

An SDN strategy that focuses on a specific need makes deployments manageable, experts said. The use of SDN technology can be expanded in time as network professionals and application developers gain experience.

Over the last several years, many SDN proponents have positioned the next-generation architecture as requiring an expensive network overhaul.

 "Everyone seems to think that SDN is supposed to destroy traditional networking as it exists and it's going to be a utopia," Tom Hollingsworth, analyst for Foskett Services, said during an Interop session. "We all know that's a bunch of b******t.

"Once we actually apply SDN in the real world it's going to look completely different from what it looks like on paper."

Vendors at Interop this year were providing more use cases for their SDN products than last year, when discussions were more theoretical, Andre Kindness, analyst for Forrester Research, said in an interview. "Vendors are rolling out customers doing things."

For example, Enfield, Conn., a town of 44,000 people, uses Extreme Networks technology to manage bandwidth across 600 educational applications and 4,000 devices at schools, government administration buildings and public service agencies. The software was deployed while keeping existing network hardware.

Using the campus network

Campus networks make a good proving ground for SDN, according to Hollingsworth. He encouraged a shadow IT approach in which SDN is implemented unnoticed at a small scale.

"If you can prove that you can do it in a network without blowing up anything, then you can do parallel deployments," he said.

Implementing a Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is another option for becoming familiar with SDN, experts said. SD-WAN performs traffic load balancing across network links like MPLS and the Internet.  Startups VeloCloud, CloudGenix and Viptela are examples of vendors that provide SD-WAN technology that can be integrated into existing networks.

Hewlett-Packard is also providing SDN in bite-size pieces, so companies can use the technology for specific purposes. The company launched an SDN app store last year for running pre-built software on HP's Virtual Applications Networks OpenFlow controller.

HP software include Network Protector, a network access control application; Network Optimizer, a quality of service engine for Microsoft Skype for Business, and Network Visualizer, a network monitoring tool for diagnosing and repairing bottlenecks. HP launched the latter at Interop.

Enterprises and cloud service providers worldwide are expected to deploy SDN in large numbers over the next several years. By 2018, the market will reach $8 billion, representing a compound annual growth rate of 89% since 2014, according to IDC.

Next Steps

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