Software-defined networking has moved beyond hype, but obstacles remain to its widespread adoption
Scott Dennehy, Senior Analyst
JUL 15, 2014 01:52 AM
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TBR Perspective

Once a nascent technology understood only by networking visionaries, software-defined networking (SDN) has moved beyond the hype and into real-world network deployments. In 2012 and most of 2013, networking suppliers were primarily focused on communicating their SDN strategies and showcasing initial solutions. Over the last six to 12 months, however, TBR has witnessed not only a maturation of these solutions, but also the implementation of customer deployments as proof that SDN may transform the networking industry similar to how virtualization transformed the server industry over the last decade. Unlike in 2013, when SDN deployments were found only in the data centers of large cloud providers such as Google and Amazon, customers in other verticals such as retail and manufacturing are now using the technology in their production networks.

However, TBR believes some significant challenges remain for SDN to proliferate within the broader enterprise market and drive meaningful supplier revenue — namely, the lack of a clear and easily understandable business case and lack of clarity as to which group within the IT organization is responsible for deciding which SDN architecture to implement.

SDN has created a broad and diverse landscape of competitors

Despite the obstacles to widespread adoption of SDN by enterprises, suppliers remain undeterred and are lining up to provide solutions (as noted in the chart below). But unlike past network-specific technology transitions (e.g., 100Mbps Ethernet to Gigabit Ethernet), where the competitive landscape consisted only of hardware providers like Cisco, SDN has attracted a host of software vendors whose approach threatens to commoditize network hardware over the long term. For example, by implementing a solution like VMware's NSX, enterprise customers can derive many of the benefits of SDN through a purely software-based approach and without investing in new network infrastructure.

However, hardware suppliers such as Cisco will make a strong case that their solutions provide more value and a greater return on investment compared to solutions that combine software and commodity hardware. For example, because of Cisco's dominant market share position, most IT personnel already understand how to deploy and operate the company's networking products, so the initial capital expenditure required to implement Cisco's hardware-based Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) will be more than offset by lower operational expenses over the long term.



Solution Name

Key Products


Application Fluent Networking

·     Nuage Networks Virtualized Services Platform (VSP)

·     Nuage Networks Virtualized Services Gateway (VSG)

·     OpenFlow and OpenStack-enabled switches (e.g., OmniSwitch 6800)



·     Vyatta 5400/5600 vRouter

·     OpenFlow-enabled routers and switches (e.g., MLX/ICX/VDX families)


Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI)

·     Nexus 9000 switch

·     Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC)



·     Z9500 Fabric Switch

·     Active Fabric Controller



·     OpenFlow-enabled switches (e.g., FlexFabric family)

·     Virtual Application Networks (VAN) SDN Controller Software

·     VAN Connection Manager


SDN for Virtual Environments (SDN-VE)

·     SDN-VE KVM, VMware and OpenFlow editions

·     OpenFlow enabled switches (e.g., RackSwitch family)



·     EX9200 switch

·     Contrail SDN Controller


ProgrammableFlow Networking

·     PF Series Switches

·     PF6800 SDN Controller

·     ProgrammableFlow Unified Network Coordinator


Oracle Virtual Networking

·     Oracle Fabric Interconnect

·     Oracle Fabric Manager

·     Oracle Fabric Monitor

·     Oracle SDN





Lack of a clear business case and a more complex decision-making process will slow enterprise adoption of SDN

While the evidence is mounting that SDN will lower overall network hardware spend, information is lacking to support a robust business case for the technology. Unlike server virtualization, where both the technology and business benefits are clear, it is far more difficult to quantify the true cost of the software, hardware and professional services required to transform network functions from physical to virtual while still operating at scale with seamless fidelity and reliability.

Standardization, including the efforts of organizations such as OpenDaylight and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), will in part address customer reliability concerns by ensuring interoperability between vendor solutions. By supporting industry standards, vendors can assure customers that their SDN products will operate smoothly in multivendor environments, both now and in the future. But ultimately, SDN will thrive when product results can justify investment and provide a foundation for a business case.

Even in situations where the business case for deploying SDN is clear, the question remains about exactly who within the IT organization should make the final decision as to which approach is right for the enterprise. In the past, the network group had clear responsibility and authority for all decision making regarding changes and upgrades to network infrastructure. However, with the emergence of solutions designed to extend server virtualization into the network domain (e.g., VMware) the server group now has a seat at the table, bringing with it a compelling story to tell. This creates friction within the IT organization, which TBR believes will limit the speed at which SDN is adopted.

Despite the obstacles inhibiting enterprise adoption of SDN, suppliers will continue to focus on educating customers on the benefits of the technology (and their unique solutions), helping IT make a strong business case and facilitating smooth decision making wherever possible. Over the next 12 months, TBR expects to see further progress in SDN in the form of more use cases, vendor solutions and customer success stories.

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