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Enterprises struggle with SDN development, culture

Enterprises say retraining and cultural changes stemming from SDN development are more difficult to solve than technological challenges.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Enterprises shifting to software-defined networking face an upheaval in IT operations that's more challenging than the new technology.

During the Open Networking Summit (ONS) last week, the National Security Agency, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse discussed the challenges SDN brings to bureaucracies and heavily regulated organizations that typically abhor change and shun risk.

"Change is the enemy," Vesko Pehlivanov, head of Credit Suisse's IT strategy team, said.

Nevertheless, these enterprises are taking the plunge because the benefits of SDN over traditional networking are too great to ignore. Without SDN, organizations cannot take full advantage of other new technologies like virtualization and cloud computing, both key reasons cited by companies moving to software-centric networking, according to IDC.

But enterprises at ONS reported that the cultural changes SDN requires eclipse technological challenges. For one, the wall separating network operators and software developers has to be torn down. Network pros have to learn coding and how to configure software, while developers need to program network services into their applications.

How organizations handle retraining will depend on their culture and whether they have to deal with employee unions, panelists said. In another ONS panel discussion, Anshul Sadan, head of customer engineering at Arista Networks, said he worked with a large organization that gave its IT employees 18 months to learn about SDN or they would lose their jobs. At the end of the period, 500 people were let go, according to Sadan.

Dealing with open SDN

Besides workforce changes, SDN will disrupt how organizations develop technology. Those using code from the many open source projects behind SDN will have to share their work. Sharing will be difficult for banks, which consider their applications a competitive advantage, and even harder for a spy agency like the NSA.

"This is actually a really big problem," Bryan Larish, chief technology officer for the NSA's enterprise group, told ONS attendees.

Despite the challenge, the secretive agency is opening up. The day after ONS ended, Puppet Labs announced that the NSA had contributed its System Integrity Management Platform to the open source community. Its framework is a collection of security tools built on Puppet Labs technologies.

Puppet develops open source tools for centralizing, automating and managing network configurations. An SDN controller uses data stored in the tools to provision services.

The NSA is using SDN to centralize network provisioning, management and security in the data center and a campus network that is used by the enterprise IT department. "We're eating our own dog food in some sense," Larish said.

OpenFlow is a key open source technology in the NSA's work. "The reason for this is (network) control," Larish said. "We are all in on OpenFlow. This is the path we are pursuing."

SDN in campus networks

Early adopters of SDN in campus networks are using it mostly for security and policy enforcement, network slicing, traffic isolation, application-aware routing and support for video streaming and collaboration, IDC analyst Rohit Mehra said in another ONS session. However, most companies are waiting for vendors to demonstrate a clearer return on investment -- a process expected to take several years.

"This is not going to happen overnight," Mehra said.

In the future, the NSA wants to extend SDN to the WAN, Larish said. The agency is undecided whether to buy the building blocks from several vendors or get everything from one.

Credit Suisse is struggling with how to integrate SDN technology with its 5,000 to 6,000 banking applications, many of which are on legacy infrastructure. "We cannot build new systems in isolation," Pehlivanov said.

Credit Suisse has a private cloud and believes SDN could be useful in incorporating services from public clouds. But the bank has no experience in integrating the two platforms.

"We don't have any good cookie cutter answers," Pehlivanov said. "We're looking to the industry to help us out."

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