Why CEOs Should Care About Software-Defined Networks

The momentum around Software-Defined Networks (SDNs) continues to be as strong as ever. It’s hard for me to have a discussion with anyone in technology without the topic of “software-defined” something coming up. However, recently I’ve had a few discussions with non-IT individuals about the value of SDNs and why they should care about them. Almost all of the marketing that one can find regarding SDNs is directed towards the technology buyer, which makes sense, given that it’s a highly technical topic. But I do think it’s important we all understand why a business leader should care about SDNs, and I thought I’d outline my thoughts here.

SDN’s enable business agility

The business environment has changed significantly over the past decade. Competitive advantage today is based on a company’s ability to be agile. That is, to see a business opportunity and capitalize on it quickly. Organizations that can do this will keep ahead of their peers; those that don’t will quickly fall behind and face becoming irrelevant.

Now, having the desire to become an agile organization and actually becoming one are two totally different things. Business today is IT-driven and agile companies require a flexible IT foundation. Parts of IT are definitely achieving the level of nimbleness required. Virtualization has allowed us to deploy compute resources anywhere any move them instantly. Flash-based storage enables IT to create high speed “pools” that can be allocated to whatever application needs it instantly. But what about the network? The legacy network remains about as flexible as Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory discussing his “roommate agreement”. Make no mistake, a business can only be as agile as the least agile component, and that component today is the network — this is what CEOs should care about.

Drawbacks of Legacy Networks

CEOs don’t really care about white boxes, hypervisor-based network virtualization, converged systems, or control planes… nor should they. What they care about is when a business decides to move in a certain direction, the services required to implement that change can be turned up quickly. This is where legacy networks fall down.

Legacy networks are highly manually-intensive with respect to change management. This is because changing networks is done on a box-by-box — sometimes times port-by-port — management model. This means changes to the edge, aggregation tier, rack, and core of a network. It’s a slow, laborious process that can often take months to complete. I can tell you, having done some recent research on the topic, that the average time for a network service to be implemented or changed is four months. Four months is hardly the “agility” that business leaders are looking for today.

SDN = True Agility

To me, this is the true value of a “software-defined network”. The decoupling of the control plane from the data plane, combined with rich APIs, gives IT the ability to make network changes from a single location instead of having to do things node by node. Ideally, the applications would interface with the network and the required changes would be done automatically. The goal here being application-driven, zero-touch provisioning.

While we are still years from having this vision become a reality, the fact is that software-defined networks bring a level of agility to the network that has never been seen before. Any CEO that is tasked with making his or her organization more flexible and nimble should ensure that SDNs have the highest level of attention within the IT organization, because the cost of not doing SDN might just be too high.