A guide: Finding choice in the software-defined labyrinth

Getting to the heart of how software-defined networks (SDN), and software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) can benefit your business and the options they provide will improve your IT networks. But currently, not all companies are getting their heads around the technology.

The reality is that SDN, and related technologies are at the heart of next generation networks. SDN delivers a new network architecture, one where the intelligence of the network is controlled centrally by software, enabling greater automation, agility and flexibility.

SDN does away with the need for separate boxes for individual tasks and also makes it easier to provision new services at the drop of a hat. But at present, there are a lot of options to think about and many are struggling to grasp what each solution means for their business. Others don’t even realise the benefits they will get from such technologies. 

For example, a premium car manufacturer I spoke to kept having to buy bandwidth all the time and didn't know why. It was only later on that they realised that capacity was being gobbled up on social networking that didn't deliver value. They needed the ability to control what was going on in their network and prioritise key traffic and services. The combination of application visibility and control adds real value in this kind of scenario.

Many others are scratching their heads on what route to take. The best course of action may be to think about how your business will operate in the future as well as today.

Embracing the options

Take a look at the landscape that we're currently presented with. SDN, SD-WAN, NFV, VNF are all available but which should you choose and why? And more importantly, is there a right and wrong way to approach the software-defined options?

At present the available network options are numerous but the overall aim is to enable administrators to monitor and control the activities taking place on their network from one central location. Software-defined technologies enable companies to establish new digital business workflows, better manage network capacity and launch customer interaction channels quickly.

The benefits are there but that doesn’t make it any easier for the uninitiated to pick from what seems to be an endless list of solutions. But although the growing number of options are muddying the water slightly, they are also offering choice, which at the moment is a valuable asset for companies in flux.

Seeing sense in software

When it comes to software-defined anything, we’re still in the hype phase. There’s a temptation to lead with the technology but we should in fact reflect each business’s current reality as well as their aspirations for the future. We will see a gradual move away from the private network and static configurations towards a more hybrid, agile software-defined environment where the ability to consume services becomes the norm. 

SD-WAN provides its own robust set of features and benefits such as better visibility and control over the resources on your network, and to utilise available links and services in a dynamic fashion, in line with your business priorities. SDN brings that to the next level by taking us away from vendor-specific implementations and towards a truly open environment where software-delivered applications and services can be deployed on almost any platform rapidly and as required.

I look at it like this. Think about your car sat nav. Using SD-WAN might be similar to using a proprietary standalone device. SDN is slightly different in that it is delivered on a vendor-agnostic platform. So, using the same analogy, it would be like using your mobile phone to direct you on the roads, using whatever app you want on that device. As a result, if you’ve already invested in the hardware, there’s a likelihood that you’ll want to keep hold of it for a few years to justify that investment. But taking a software approach gives you more choice, so you’re less locked in.

An open future

One of the most important things that needs to happen to really unlock that flexibility inherent in this type of setup is that there needs to be more focus on standardisation across different products and services. Currently, there's still a way to go to enable everything to work seamlessly so the customer can have true choice.

In the next three to five years, we’ll see the shift from hardware to software-based services becoming more apparent as service providers work on the same set of open standards. There will be an era of deploying anything, anywhere on any platform.

Where next?

The decision you make today regarding a software-defined infrastructure won’t be a black and white choice. It will differ according to your individual business needs. The challenge is making sure that the SD-WAN or SDN provider you choose is able to offer you the right service and to keep an open environment so that you have a choice over future services and are not “hemmed in” to a particular set of features.

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