In Assessing SDN’s Future, Take Care in Picking Precedents

Software-defined networking (SDN) continues to generate considerable attention and commentary, with this humble corner of the Internet contributing to the hubbub. There’s always a danger, especially with new technologies, that the hype cycle will result in a scenario in which proponents will overpromise and the technologies, understandably, will underdeliver.

When that happens, disappointment ensues. Gartner calls it the “trough of disillusionment,” which often serves as the darkness before the market dawn.

Certainly many caveats have been raised as expectation moderators to SDN. These caveats often come with references to preceding technologies that didn’t quite evolve according to originator intent or market plan. Lately, in fact, some have cited the slow adoption of IPv6 as a cautionary tale for SDN.

Not Analogous

In more than one respect, however, the comparison of IPv6 comparison with SDN doesn’t fly.

As the existence of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) attests, large cloud service providers clearly perceive compelling business reasons  for the development and deployment of SDN solutions. Conversely, IPv6 was seen as something enterprises and service providers would have to do eventually as opposed to something they wanted to do.

Where the switch to IPv6 from IPv4 was driven by fear, the transition from conventional networking to software-defined networking (SDN), at least for large service providers, is being driven by the desire for business benefits and increased operational efficiency. While the purveyors of IPv6 sternly wielded a threatening stick to drive compliance, the champions of SDN at the ONF waved the carrots of network programmability and reduced operating expenditures. It was something they want, not something fear compels them to do.

Yes, I know that there always were good business reasons for enterprises and service providers to adopt IPv6, but those reasons often were articulated poorly or inadequately. Instead, fear took center stage, attempting to browbeat and threaten its audience into abject fealty.

Only Works for the Mob

Nobody likes to be threatened. Negative sales campaigns, predicated on implicit or explicit threats of impending doom, are less likely to resonate than those that are positive and inspiring. (Unless, of course, you’re running a protection racket for the mob, in which case your threats might be pretty damn effective, at least for a while.) IPv6 was all about the approach of darkening storm clouds, wheres SDN offers the promise of sunny innovation and a bright future.

As technologies and as market phenomena, IPv6 and SDN have little in common. It seems folly to cite the slow rate of adoption of IPv6 as a predictive precursor for SDN.

So, while SDN might not live up to its promise — and it will meet particularly strong headwinds in the enterprise — it will not face the same problems that confronted IPv6. They are qualitatively different technologies, and SDN will experience a market trajectory quite different from that of IPv6.

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