SDN: Focus on Simplification and Education

SimplicityThe mania around software defined networks is at an all time high. If this were the World Wrestling Federation, we would be referring to the early adopters and media as SDN-a-maniacs. However, despite the hype and the numerous trials we hear about, there are very few production deployments of SDNs. Why? Well, I think the focus of the SDNs vendors hasn’t been squarely in line with what SDN evaluators are looking for.

Much of the industry — too much if you ask me — focuses on the impact SDNs will have on the business models of Cisco and other mainstream vendors. Frankly, buyers couldn’t give a hoot about this and are more concerned with just keeping the network up and running. I also see a fair amount of marketing on network virtualization, which is or is not the main use case for SDNs depending on which vendor you talk to. Again, interesting, but is this what buyers are really looking for right now?

Towards the end of last year, ZK Research and Tech Target jointly ran an SDN purchase intention study and one of the questions that was asked was, “How do you think SDNs can help your company?”  In the top response, 50% of respondent base answered, “simplify network architecture.”  45% of the respondents selected, “enable better network management” (respondents chose three responses).  Compare this to only 17% that selected, “enable network virtualization,” 7% that chose “enable a flatter network,” and 3.6% that responded, “enable a cloud network.”

While the advanced use cases are very cool and may hold some of the long-term value of software-defined networks, the buyers have spoken — network simplification and better manageability are what people want today. I do believe that a small subset of companies — the biggest of the big — are looking for some of the advanced features, but those companies historically are the outliers.  Companies like Google tend to do things their own way and have hundreds of highly skilled network engineers to handle complexity. Most companies do not, and more complexity is something that can’t be handled, even if it means more features and new use cases.

Another question we asked was, “Why won’t you invest in SDN in the next 12-24 months?” and over half of the respondents, 53.5%, stated, “I don’t know enough about SDNs.” Also, 43.7% responded that “I can run my network with traditional hardware,” indicating that there’s no awareness of what you can do with SDNs that you can’t with the traditional network. The third most popular response for this question, which was a little over a third responding positively, was, “I need to learn more about SDN through other companies’ use cases.” These responses clearly indicate that there’s a lack of education from the industry.

For us in the industry it’s interesting to pontificate on what could happen if SDNs get adopted and what cool things we could do with the network, but for the masses, simpler and easier networks to manager resonate far more than the advanced use cases.

Image credit: whoalse by Allen (flickr) – CC-BY-2.0