In the long run, I think software defined networking (SDN) is destined for tremendous success, not only at massive cloud service providers, where it already is finding favor and increased adoption, but also at smaller service providers and even — with time and perseverance — at enterprises.
It just might not happen as quickly as some expect.
Shape of Networking to Come
In a presentation last autumn at the Open Networking Summit, Nicira co-founder Nick McKeown asserted that SDN would shape the future of networking in several key respects. He said it would do so by empowering network owners and operators, by speeding the pace of innovation, by diversifying the supply chain, and by delivering a robust foundation for programmability predicated on a standardized forwarding abstraction and provable network properties.
On the whole, McKeown probably will be right, and his technological reasoning seems entirely reasonable. As in any market, however, the commercial appeal of SDN will be determined by human factors as well as by technological considerations.
The enterprise market will be the toughest nut to crack, though, and not only because the early agenda of SDN, as defined by the board members of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and others, has been focused resolutely on providing solutions for the largest of cloud service providers.
Winning Hearts and Minds
Capturing enterprise hearts and minds will be difficult for SDN, and it will be hard not just because of technological challenges, such as backward compatibility with (and investments in) existing network infrastructure, but also because of the cultural milieu and entrenched mindset of enterprise networking professionals.
I’ve written before, on two occasions actually, about how human and institutional resistance to change can strongly inhibit the commercial adoption of technologies with otherwise compelling credentials and qualifications. Generally, people fear change, especially when they suspect that the change in question will affect them adversely.
And make no mistake, software-defined networking will inspire fear and resistance in some quarters, enterprise networking professionals prominent among them.
Networking’s Cultural Artifacts
Jennifer Rexford, professor of computer science at Princeton University and a former AT&T Research staffer, wrote that one of her colleagues once observed that computer-networking people “really loved their artifacts.” Those artifacts probably would include the many distributed routing protocols that have proliferated over the years.
Software-defined networking wants to loosen emotional attachment to those artifacts, just as it wants to jettison the burgeoning bag of protocols that distinguishes networking from computer programming and other disciplines. But many networking professionals, including those in enterprise IT departments, see their mastery of complex protocols as hallmarks of who they are and what they do.
Getting the Network “Out of the Way”
Yet there’s more to it than that. Consider the workplace implications of software-defined networks. The whole idea of SDN is to make networks programmable, to put applications and those who program and manage them in the driver’s seat, and to get the network “out of the way” of the sweeping virtualized progress that has enveloped all other data-center infrastructure.
To survive and thrive in this brave new virtual world, networking professionals might have to become more like programmers. From an organizational standpoint, even though there are compelling business and technological reasons to adopt SDN, resistance from the fraternity of networking professionals will be stiff and difficult to overcome.
In the realm of the super-sized data centers at Google and elsewhere, this isn’t a serious problem. The concepts associated with “DevOps” and with thinking outside boxes, departmental and otherwise, thrive in those precincts. Google long has eschewed the purchase of servers and networking gear from vendors, and it does things its own way. To greater or lesser degrees, other large cloud-service providers now dance to a similar beat. But the enterprise? Well, that’s a different animal altogether.
Vendors in No Hurry
Some of the new SDN startups already are meeting with pockets of resistance. They’re seeing cleavage — schism might be too strong a word, though maybe not — between cloud architects and server-virtualization specialists on one side of the house and network professionals on the opposing side. The two camps see things differently,with perspectives and priorities that are difficult to reconcile. (There are exceptions to the rule, of course, with some networking professionals eager to embrace SDN, but they currently are in the minority.)
As we’ve seen, the board of directors at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) isn’t concerned about how quickly the enterprise gets with the SDN program. I also would suggest that most networking vendors, which are excluded from the ONF’s board, aren’t in a hurry to push an SDN agenda that features logically centralized, server-based controllers. You’ll see SDN from these vendors, yes, but the control plane will be distributed until such time as enterprises and service providers (not on the ONF board) demand otherwise. That will be a while, I suspect.
We tend to underestimate resistance to change in this industry. Gartner devised the “trough of disillusionment” and the technology hype cycle for good reason. Some technologies remain in that basin longer than others. Some never emerge from what becomes a bottomless pit rather than a trough.
That won’t happen to SDN. As I wrote earlier, I think it has a bright future. Don’t be surprised, though, if the hype gets ahead of the reality. When it comes to technologies and markets, our inherent optimism occasionally is thwarted by our intrinsic resistance to change.