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Three Key Areas for Successful Enterprise SDN Adoption

Mike LaRue, Principal, Network Strategy at Kaiser Permanente and Kristan Kline, Principal, Network Strategy at Kaiser Permanente
Mike LaRue, Principal, Network Strategy at Kaiser Permanente

Mike LaRue, Principal, Network Strategy at Kaiser Permanente

Software Defined Networking (SDN) concepts have been around for many years, generically promising more agility and flexibility for network infrastructures. Until recently, the bulk of SDN deployments were with cloud and carrier service providers to quickly and consistently operate their multi-tenant environments at massive scale. These leading early adopters built their SDN solutions with large pools of development resources on their mostly greenfield infrastructures. Enterprises are usually not lucky enough to have either of these in their environment. But, as the SDN market matured and network vendor solutions became more mainstream, enterprise adoption dramatically accelerated. With this, enterprises are now facing new challenges to deploy SDN and achieve the promised agility and value.

One of the main misconceptions of SDN is that it is just another “tool” that gets added to the network for management. It is instead a fundamental change to how networks are deployed and operated. SDN will impact an enterprise’s approach to IT processes, require new personnel skill sets, and change how the business interacts with the network. SDN has the potential to bring significant value to an enterprise, but only if they are willing to leverage its full potential. Adoption of SDN is not just buying new network equipment and upgrading legacy but transforming how that equipment is used.

 One of the main misconceptions of SDN is that it is just another “tool” that gets added to the network for management 

Embrace Automation

Automation is core to the “Infrastructure as Code” concept that SDN brings. Manually managing the network device by device cannot keep up with the speed of execution that is needed in the typical enterprise today. Manual errors as well as configuration drift negatively impact the stability and health of the network. In addition, managing dynamic traffic flows is difficult, if not impossible, without automating network configuration, operation, and incident resolution.

All current SDN products in the market come with some valuable basic automation capabilities included “out-of-the-box”,like Zero Touch Provisioning and Software Image Management. However, in order to extract the full potential from SDN,enterprises will need to analyze in detail their specific service delivery processes, tasks, and requirements. Identifying the most beneficial functions to automate is an important activity in the SDN journey. The value of a selected automated SDN function is directly proportional to the frequency it is triggered. If an enterprise can automate manual tasks that are performed hundreds or thousands of times per month, the payback is easily calculated and felt by the operations team. Enterprises need to be prepared for the detailed work required to identify and create automations specific to their enterprise as they will not be delivered natively from a selected SDN platform.Kristan Kline, Principal, Network Strategy at Kaiser Permanente

Transform the Network Team – Not Replace Them

Rolling out SDN does not eliminate the need for staff knowing Internet Protocol (IP), understanding routing and switching, or having network troubleshooting skills. The underlying networking technology does not change because of SDN and retaining this knowledge is essential. What does change is how the network is managed, how information about the network is gathered, and how the engineering team will interface with the network. SDN is a net addition of skills for the network teams.

The programmability of SDNdrives a need for code development expertise. The teams that plan, build, and run the network must be versed in the use of APIs with the ability to translate a classic network engineering task into the appropriate SDN logic. In the early days of SDN it was thought that network engineers would be replaced by developers, but instead what happened is that network engineers became developers. Knowing how to code was not enough to perform the new network role, but understanding the impact of the code on the network was just as important. Enterprises will need to invest in their teams to enable the skillsets required to operate the new software-driven environment.

End-to-End SDN Automation is a Challenge

The current SDN market is unfortunately siloed by separate infrastructure domains. Solutions exist for the WAN, data center, and campus environments but integration between these silos is limited, especially in a multi-vendor deployment. Each solution area offers its own set of APIs to pull data and push configuration changes. But, the APIs between solutions often to do not provide the same level of information or offer the same configuration capability. Thus, programmatic interoperability between and across SDN infrastructure solutions is a major challenge. Even single vendor SDN ecosystems that provide the full software suite have limited interoperability across all SDN silos. Unfortunately, it will be a several years before mature cross-silo programmatic SDN interoperability is available widely in the market. This means that enterprises will have to choose to either manage their SDN domains separately or develop their own cross-platform automation while market solutions continue to mature.

As enterprises begin to convert from legacy networking models to SDN, it will be easy to focus only on rolling out network hardware and basic SDN features: which is certainly better than not starting at all. But enterprises that desire to achieve higher value from their network infrastructure will include in their upgrade programs the time and labor to go beyond the “out-of-the-box” capabilities. They will plan for the difficult work of analyzing and extracting the most valuable candidates for automation. They will invest in their teams to train the new required skills and work to get buy-in to the new ways of running the network. And they will understand that SDN will be a journey of continual improvement and infrastructure overlay integration that does not have a finite end date. The enterprises that embrace this journey and plan their infrastructure conversions carefully to include these three key areas can better realize the promise and value of SDN.

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