Analyst Report: Network architect perceptions of SDN, cloud, and the future of networking

1 Summary

Most commentators believe that significant changes in networking infrastructure will arrive in 2015 in the form of software-defined networking (SDN), but Gigaom Research’s recent survey of network architects, engineers, and managers shows that 20 percent are already using SDN, and that cloud adoption is running far ahead of most predictions.

Survey results revealed

In January 2014 Gigaom Research conducted a survey of network architects, engineers, and managers on their experiences with the cloud and SDN in today’s market. The results from more than 250 responses covering a survey audience of large companies with multiple data centers and extensive experience provide some startling insight into the reality of SDN.

In February 2014 Gigaom Research convened a panel of analysts to discuss the results and consider what they mean to the industry. This research report combines highlights from the survey results and the panel discussion.

Key highlights from this report include:

  • One fifth of the survey respondents are already using SDN.
  • Nearly half of the survey respondents are using some form of cloud services already.
  • Less than 10 percent of the companies are not planning any sort of private or public cloud capability.
  • The respondents indicated that operational improvements such as mobility and agility are more important to them than cost.

Next steps

Based on the results of the survey, companies should be considering three proactive steps:

  1. Initiate an education and research program to bring knowledge into the organization.
  2. Define an automation strategy to promote internal co-operation and capability.
  3. Conduct a cost and benefit review of public and private clouds to understand the business value of these new technologies.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Wavebreakmedia LTD/Thinkstock.

2 SDN is already impacting the market

More than 20 percent of the responses indicated that SDN was already in use.

SDN Adoption is far ahead of expectations

Source: Gigaom Research

The primary business drivers for adopting SDN are agility and efficiency, and they are ultimately aimed at extracting more value from IT infrastructure. At the same time, SDN is expected to improve problem areas in networking by providing new tools for automation and troubleshooting that manage change risk and enable service delivery.

Expected business benefits from SDN

Source: Gigaom Research

A lack of visibility and integration between virtual servers is also a major issue, as is solving the network to virtual machine configuration challenge.

Education challenges also exist. The survey results show that customers have a solid comprehension of what SDN can do for business and operations but have limited awareness of how that it delivered. The audience also has limited awareness of overlay networking and seems to confuse it with data center interconnect.

Finally, with a large number of responses showing that organizations are using the cloud today, the majority will deploy SDN in the next two years and will look to trusted vendors to provide the products and support to make that transition.

3 Cloud isn’t coming — it’s here

The survey shows that cloud and SDN are already in production for a surprising number of companies.  Nearly half of the respondents indicated that they have deployed or are using cloud services today, and we have already shown that more than 20 percent of those surveyed are using SDN to improve the cloud already.

Adoption of cloud services

Source: Gigaom Research

Today, cloud services use existing network technology. WAN and internet services, data-center networks, and firewalls have not changed in the last five years. Compare this with the impact on databases and server operating systems.

4 What is SDN?

SDN describes dozens of technologies, products, and systems, but it is a technology-driven strategy that changes how network infrastructure is owned and operated.

In a traditional hardware-based network, data networks were a loose collection of self-autonomous routers and switches that shared configuration data with devices around it. Other networking devices like firewalls, load balancers, and VPN Concentrators, which are a part of the network, are configured separately and lack coherence and consistency — both when operating and when troubleshooting.

SDN is about using software and technology to enhance the network by using automation in a flexible and programmatic fashion. SDN is a set of software-driven functions that can be applied to both physical and virtual networks to leverage network virtualization for service and operational agility. This agility will reduce the time to revenue and operational flexibility.

Connectivity and services

Networking for the last 20 years has been focused on connectivity. Business value has been derived from the ability to access applications residing on servers from desktops and laptops.  Today connectivity has been simplified, and most people assume that a network is ubiquitous and available. What customers want from networking is services.  The operational reality is that networking technology is complex, averse to rapid change, and risky to operate. This is not a good foundation for building services.

Network is core to cloud

Source: Gigaom Research

First stage of SDN

The first stage of SDN services is to overhaul and improve the operational capability of network operations through the use of software tools that communicate with devices and draw them into a single system.

The progress of software development, especially large-scale programs and computational algorithms in network graphs, is such that abstracting functions from the network devices into a separate system is now possible. This “control-plane abstraction” provides a method for end-to-end control of network traffic flows instead of hop-by-hop handling.

Second stage of SDN

The second stage of SDN is to abstract the control plane to build services from network connectivity. What sort of services? Automated network provisioning with integrated billing, integral service management of “customer flows,” or graphical interfaces that allow service creation and destruction as a virtuous cycle. We can remove operational risk through the use of automated tools that are far more capable of network provisioning with repeatable, consistent, and automated activities.

Equally vital, the software platform becomes single focal point for integration of the network with applications.

SDN Summary

SDN is best defined as a group of software applications that use a wide range of new and existing standards coupled with limited changes to the network hardware to create services from connectivity. Also important is that SDN is an emergent market transition. Future generations of technology will improve and provide more value so that the best solutions and products will prove themselves over time.

On this basis, SDN is a disruption to the data-networking market, and the fact that 20 percent of responsdents to our survey already believe they have SDN indicates that customers are hungry for change. The current networking is acceptable, but we need something better to support converged infrastructure.

More on SDN

For more information on SDN, see the following:

Gigaom Research: Evolving SDN: Tackling challenges for web-scale deployments

This report, which provides a detailed introduction to SDN and Overlay Networking, is recommended reading for more insight into SDN technology.

Gigaom Research: SDN, NFV, and open source: the operator’s view

This paper looks at the relationship between SDN and NFV from the perspective of a service provider.

5 Risk and what’s wrong with networking

One goal for the survey was to discover whether networking is perceived as a problem in the enterprise. Some prominent figures in the cloud industry have claimed that networking is preventing cloud implementation and that innovation has been lacking. The figure below shows that this is clearly not an issue in the enterprise, where responses show that the network is not perceived as preventing cloud adoption but is still of concern.

Network doesn’t prevent business from adopting cloud

Source: Gigaom Research

Although networking isn’t preventing the move to implement private or public clouds, networking is still difficult to operate.

Network changes are perceived as risky

Source: Gigaom Research

As a networking fundamental, technology such as Ethernet and IP addressing were designed with the assumption that end points would remain in one place on an almost indefinite basis. This means that moving servers, desktops, laptops, and smartphones use other technology to overcome the limitations.  Change is possible but the underlying technology is based on the assumption that change occurs in limited numbers with long intervals or timeouts for the network to update. For example:

  • Routing protocols take roughly a minute to adapt to a path change in the network and require complex protocols and design discipline to improve path convergence.
  • Mobile endpoints such as wi-fi-connected laptops require complex tunnel networks via wi-fi controllers to support enterprise mobility. The same is true for 3G and 4G smartphones, where nodes in the core handle the edge roaming.
  • Data-center networks have brittle failure modes related to 30-year-old protocols designed for low-power devices with little RAM.

These challenges are being addressed with SDN. Today’s networks are designed as a loosely coupled collection of business assets that that provide connectivity. The use of the software to manage network devices as an end-to-end system creates new methods for adapting the network to more closely match business requirements and to offer services to applications and business processes.

Cloud migrations

The data network remains critical to the IT infrastructure, as well as for cloud adoption. Survey responses show that many people regard the network as a vital prerequisite but an equal number believe other areas have just as many challenges, too.

Is the network critical to your cloud plans?

An enterprise planning a private or public cloud has many business challenges — backup, security, application compatibility, and process transformation. At a technology level, cloud services put demand onto the existing network infrastructure. The following are few specific areas that are common areas of concern. An enterprise planning to use public cloud must perform network planning on its internet gateway to match the network-bandwidth requirements to access services in the public cloud. Network capacity in several areas must be considered:

  • Internet connection bandwidth
  • Internet resiliency
  • Latency
  • Network security tools — firewalls, IDS, and other compliance issues
  • Operational skills to manage a public-cloud resource gateway
  • Cloud networking itself

6 Cloud adoption

The rate at which companies are adopting the cloud is vital to the future of networking. Current network technology is not well suited to cloud operations. Our survey shows that cloud and SDN are already in production for a surprisingly large number of companies. Nearly half of the respondents indicated that they have deployed or are using cloud services today, and more than 20 percent are already using SDN to improve their cloud.

Cloud adoption

Source: Gigaom Research

There are a few major technology areas of network technology that need enhancement to deliver optimal outcomes for customers.

  • Mobility
  • Deployment agility
  • Improved operability with simplified operations
  • Increased flexibility
  • Increased performance
  • Improved resiliency — design-resilient infrastructures that can be ready for failure, and even more ready for re-balancing
  • Centralized control
  • Reduced costs (described below)

7 Outcomes from cloud initiatives

Our survey included a question about the benefits and outcomes of reduced costs. As the graph below illustrates, reducing costs is equally important as increasing agility and delivery of new services to the survey respondents.

Benefits expected from cloud initiatives

Source: Gigaom Research

Responses to another question revealed that reducing capex and opex was not a key issue. The results from these questions show that reducing costs is less important than delivering value to the business. These answers suggest that the concept of reducing costs is more aligned with topics like improving service delivery, faster provisioning, and more operational tooling. All of this leads to a narrower definition of cost.

Business benefits from adopting SDN

Source: Gigaom Research

This perspective is also supported by responses on changing business needs. One question asked why the respondent’s IT organization was unable to support changing business needs. Responses showed that neither technology nor budget is a priority concern. The key issues respondents identified were resources and complexity.

Supporting Changing Business Needs

Source: Gigaom Research

If financial costs were a primary concern then the issue of constrained budget should show in the responses. Instead, it highlights that IT teams are looking to do more with what they already have and improve the service offered to the business.

What this means for SDN and the enterprise

Our webinar panel concluded that SDN matches these expectations. SDN will provide solutions to address the resource management and complexity challenges through the use of applications and centralized control. How will SDN deliver on this promise? By addressing hard-to-solve issues. A survey question asked about the biggest challenge when dealing with virtualization.

Challenges of virtualization

Source: Gigaom Research

SDN systems address all of these issues. For example, Juniper Contrail and Midokura MidoNet deliver tight and deep integration, not only with the OpenStack and data center network, but also support mobility between data centers.

OpenStack is a collection of software systems that orchestrate all areas of the data center including compute, storage, and network. OpenStack delivers business results by converging the compute, storage, and network infrastructure into a system managed by software. The SDN-software console collects network data and status while providing a graphical console that shows the end-to-end status of the server and network relationship. In this way SDN is solving key customer problems of VM and network configuration and VM mobility.

8 Changing business needs

During our webinar, “Survey results revealed: Network architects’ perceptions of Cloud, SDN, and the future of networking,” the panel discussed the concept of “operational cost,” which refers to the emotional cost of delivering IT services. The panel felt that IT teams are looking for new ways to improve their service delivery and that tools like SDN and cloud can facilitate this improvement.

IT perception within the organization

Source: Gigaom Research

Orchestration and automation provide a way to reduce the emotional cost of delivering new services, while the financial cost is expected to remain about the same. In the worst case scenario, the webinar panel expected that spending patterns would change to include new products or technologies.

This, of course, directly highlights the primary issue of SDN and cloud adoption as a way of improving service to the business. To repeat, SDN adoption rates for this survey are much higher than might otherwise be expected. This leads to the question, “Where exactly SDN is being deployed?” The survey doesn’t provide any insights here but the panel discussion speculated that that, at least, customers are conducting trials and evaluations of SDN platforms and that some percentage will be deploying SDN into pilot projects or development environments. Existing vendors are investing heavily in SDN products.

9 Future of networking: what to look for

Networking is undergoing a significant change as SDN transforms the design and operation of the network infrastructure. When customers are evaluating SDN technology they should focus on three key issues that are intersection between business and technology that were highlighted in the survey results. They are mobility, agility, and operability.

Mobility is about network supporting device mobility. In the data center, virtual machines are moving dynamically between servers. The requirement for even greater mobility between data centers is becoming more critical as companies expand, migrate, or upgrade their cloud capability. SDN provides solutions for mobility inside, between, and among data centers (whether the organization owns them or not).

Increasingly, companies are adopting multiple types of cloud technology. Connecting a private-cloud infrastructure to a public-cloud IaaS requires substantial change in technology and practice, which is yet another form of mobility.

Types of cloud being consumed

Source: Gigaom Research

Mobility is also about endpoints. Smartphones, laptops, and tables all need some controls and security. SDN cannot help with this yet, but gazing into the future suggests that SDN will help these issues.

Agility is about making changes faster and more reliably. Networks must change faster. The consensus is that network change is not risk-free. At the same time, networks have very little automation.

Agility is the art of the operational execution. Many will have heard of continuous delivery and agile delivery while considering how to bring faster execution and reducing risk. Automation is a key component in which SDN platforms will configure the network using repeatable and consistent processes to address risk and reliability. When combined with applications on the SDN controllers, IT leaders can envision new services built from the connectivity in the physical network. At the more technical level, a typical backbone switch has 3-to-6 million lines of code, but the typical product release cycle for networking hardware is 12-to-24 months. IT administrators can make changes in SDN software for new service enablement more quickly than waiting for the next feature release from networking vendor.

Today automation is limited in scope and application. Tomorrow SDN will bring major changes to configuration and deployment.

Experience with automation

Source: Gigaom Research

Visibility is the key to operability. The practice of network monitoring has only limited tools available today. Many vendors offer only SNMP for remote monitoring, a protocol that was deprecated in the mid-2000’s for configuration and to be used for status and notifications. This inability to “write” to network devices means operation of the network has always been limited. Juniper SLAX for Junos has become a signpost for the future of API driven configuration.

The relatively poor state of the network monitoring is captured in the following survey results. Monitoring is not widely used as might be expected. Only 50 percent of respondents are using SNMP monitoring, which is regarded as the absolute minimum for network visibility. Equally, there is a significant number of companies outsourcing one of the most valuable network controls of monitoring the network.

The panel discussion indicated that outsourcing of network monitoring may be a major concern when planning for private clouds. Visibility and control of the network would be lost when using an outsourcing strategy.

Tools for network monitoring

Source: Gigaom Research

The software-driven capabilities in SDN will provide a wide range of tools to realize new operational capability. Operational teams need better data about the network itself and to map that into visibility. The highly integrated nature of SDN applications and the physical network means that outsourcing of network monitoring will change significantly in the near future.

10 Moving forward

The purpose of the final survey question is to understand customer intentions about their purchasing decisions, and whether customers are incorporating SDN into their purchasing decisions today. The figure below suggests that this is happening for the majority respondents.

Importance of SDN when evaluating networking vendors

Source: Gigaom Research

Customers should be engaging with vendors who have a clearly defined an SDN strategy and are shipping products. Although SDN products are at an early stage of development, customers should be able to describe an SDN strategy in their near-term roadmap. SDN, which already shows significant and growing adoption, manages many of the current challenges in cloud networking.

Your competitors are adopting SDN

Source: Gigaom Research

11 The evolution of networking into SDN

The general view among industry watchers is that confusion surrounding costs, capabilities, complexity, and conversion could inhibit SDN adoption. Complete answers to the questions surrounding real-world SDN deployments are still lacking and complicated. The rate of change in networking has been significantly slower than other areas of the IT Infrastructure, where ROI is longer — typically up to five years.

This survey’s primary finding is that customers are seeing value in SDN solutions in the earliest stages of market progression and that SDN provides solutions to the problems of mobility, agility, and operability.

The key secondary finding is that there is more focus on improving the value of network services. While many predict that SDN is about reducing costs and simplification, the real issues that network architects want to solve are improving operations and faster service delivery — and that’s what the businesses need from their networks.

12 The road to SDN

The transition to SDN implementation can be supported by the following three activities:

  1. Education and research. Our survey concludes that many responses have a limited understand of SDN and cloud. Companies should consider increasing investment in education and research to understand the future of cloud and SDN. It is practical to prioritize this process with the design and architecture functions first but early engagement with operations is advised.
  2. Research and define an automation strategy. Automation is more than new skills or technology. It also creates significant change in the business process of deployment and operation. Defining a strategy can provide leadership and direction for internal teams to transcend the current silos and act together.
  3. Cloud technology has hidden costs and benefits. The cost and benefit for cloud adoption is rarely simple. Some of the survey responses suggest that companies may not completely understand the new environment. So it is recommended that companies perform new analysis for each application. The general wisdom is that a public cloud is better fit for new application, while  a private cloud is better-suited to applications with consistent infrastructure load (in storage, network, or compute) and existing applications architectures.

13 About Greg Ferro

Greg Ferro is a freelance network architect and engineer currently working in Great Britain for Fortune 100 companies on a wide range of enterprise networking and security technologies. He has more than 20 years of experience in networking with a recent focus on architecture and design for cloud networking. Security infrastructure is also a key part of his expertise.

He is the co-host of the Packet Pushers Podcast, a weekly podcast on data networking. Covering all areas of networking, Packet Pushers is a roundtable discussion of users, customers, and vendors who cover the networking industry. The discussion is focused on enterprise and cloud networking.

Ferro also writes regularly for Network Computing, for which he covers a range of networking topics, including product and strategy from the vendors, technology reviews, and “coalface” experiences, and he write a blog,

14 About Gigaom Research

Gigaom Research gives you insider access to expert industry insights on emerging markets. Focused on delivering highly relevant and timely research to the people who need it most, our analysis, reports, and original research come from the most respected voices in the industry. Whether you’re beginning to learn about a new market or are an industry insider, Gigaom Research addresses the need for relevant, illuminating insights into the industry’s most dynamic markets.

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15 Copyright

© Knowingly, Inc. 2014. "Network architect perceptions of SDN, cloud, and the future of networking" is a trademark of Knowingly, Inc. For permission to reproduce this report, please contact