SDN – Providing Middle East Enterprises with Networks for Innovation

By: Yarob Sakhnini, regional director, MEMA at Brocade

SDN is still at an early stage in the Middle East. The growth in the SDN market will be driven by companies working towards solving existing problems with networks – security, robustness and manageability and by innovating new revenue generating services on network infrastructures. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a highly flexible, cloud-optimized network solution that is scalable within the cloud. In our view, this “new” network will be powered by fabric-based architectures, which provide the any-to-any connectivity critical to realizing the full benefits of SDN. These include network virtualization, programmatic control of the infrastructure, automation and dynamic configuration, on-demand service insertion and pay-per-use, all through standards-based software orchestration tools. Cloud service deployment will be faster, data centre management will be simpler and network operation will be easier.

Many network operators expect the near-term benefits of SDN to be operational in nature: greater management efficiency, fewer interoperability challenges, possible OpEx reduction. However, the original promise of SDN—faster, custom innovation through programmability—provides new opportunities for rapid service innovation and monetization for organizations with the resources and processes in place to develop and deploy them. Not surprisingly, SDN has seen early adoption in service providers and large enterprises with early-adopter IT cultures and active cloud deployments. On the other hand, smaller organizations with very finite infrastructure resources and staff are using SDN to manage traffic spikes and large flows in more efficient ways.

Many organizations we talk to in the Middle East think of SDN as being solely for large-scale data centres or that it is just is not ready for prime time. The fact of the matter is that SDN is suitable for all levels of data centres, making configuration, management and monitoring a much simpler task, thus requiring less IT manpower. This is an even more critical concern in smaller organizations without the IT infrastructure of a huge business. SDN is more than just hype or beta technology at this point, It is well established in production environments and is being shipped regularly by major networking vendors.

The nature of the network an organisation has in place often dictates the speed and manner in which they can adopt SDN. Simple, small-scale networks often seen in SMEs can more easily implement SDN across the network because of their size and a lack of complexity. They often tend to be heterogeneous, meaning they are not tied to a particular vendor. In these heterogeneous networks there is lots more flexibility and choice for IT managers to mix and match technologies that suit their current and future requirements. SMEs, through their use of SDN strategies, have created flexible, intelligent and efficient networks that act as the proof points for the technology’s deployment at enterprise level. For enterprise networks, particularly those with multiple data centres and offices spanning more than one country, it is less common for the network to be heterogeneous and therefore less likely that SDN can be quickly and easily implemented.

While it’s less simple to deploy SDN across an enterprise network where there are existing agreements with a homogeneous vendor, it’s still possible to use SDN strategically in targeted areas in the network. For IT departments in large or enterprise environments looking to implement networking strategies that include SDN and NFV, there are several roads businesses can take that don’t require a complete infrastructure overhaul. Often, IT departments start by deploying SDN in specialised places in the network, particularly when they have legacy equipment that isn’t heterogeneous and is tied to a specific provider. For enterprises, we imagine that within a year it will be easier to access the kind of ‘shrink-wrapped’ SDN solutions they will need to deploy it strategically across the business, however in the short term we’re seeing these small-scale, specialist deployments, often controlled within the hypervisor, which afford network reliability and efficiency where it’s really needed.

SDN will enable a wide variety of use cases as the technologies mature. In the near term, here are some of the most commonly envisioned scenarios and SDN benefits:

Service assurance through flow optimization in the Wide Area Network (WAN): Public cloud providers may wish to ensure their SLAs by maintaining visibility and control of traffic all the way to the client’s network edge. This can be achieved by deploying SDN-enabled devices both at the cloud provider edge and client ingress, with both devices communicating to the cloud provider SDN controllers. SDN can also help provide granular control of interdata center traffic, including backup or disaster recovery operations.

Improved security: Administrators can predefine per-user access policies in Zero-Trust environments. Global threat thresholds can be implemented via an SDN controller and automatically monitored across disparate network and security systems, with predefined remediation actions.

Service improvement and velocity through easily orchestrated virtual network services: By defining, within the controller, a set of policies that can be applied to configure virtual network functions, the operator is able to truly divorce the service delivered to the client from the limitations of the infrastructure that supports it. The SDN controller can be programmed to support large, known or predictable, flows or to quickly bring new physical or virtual devices online in the event of spikes, without increasing demand on limited administrator time.

Service differentiation through rapid customization: The ability to develop new features quickly for highly specialized use cases appeals to many, particularly in the cloud and hosting space, as it can provide opportunities for timely service differentiation and incremental monetization of the network. Such use cases might take the form of new security offerings, service levels, or bandwidth on demand.

Making the move to SDN
SDN introduces new concepts that we did not have at our disposal a few years ago. So building and designing network platforms with SDN using the same concepts and architectures of yesteryears defies the benefits of SDN. Organizations need to step outside the traditional way of designing network platforms to unlock the true power of SDN.

When selecting an SDN solution, decision makers need to be aware of the risks that integrated proprietary stacks introduce. Considering open components that are developed by cooperating members and/or standards bodies has many advantages. These advantages manifest themselves most prominently in the freedom of integrating a best of breed solution and not relying on building a very complex platform from a single vendor that may or may not have all the best components.

While organizations could replace their entire networking infrastructure with an SDN-enabled environment overnight, that certainly isn’t a requirement for a successful SDN deployment. There are any numbers of ways to migrate from a traditional networking infrastructure to SDN. SDN easily coexists with existing networking technologies, and stepped process implementation can ease anxiety. A key consideration is the interoperability of the SDN components with the existing networking hardware components.

Today SDN is an evolving technology and considerable care should be taken not only when buying SDN components, but also when buying hardware components. These hardware components that organizations are deploying today should have a very clear support and future proofing when enterprises need to deploy SDN.

SDN will be replacing some of the functionalities that were built into networking hardware so network platform designers need to take into consideration the performance and functionalities of some of these SDN solutions, to at least meet or exceed the performance of many proprietary hardware based solutions. Some of these functionalities touch the security aspects. Virtualizing your network infrastructure does not mean dropping your guard against the rising tide of application threats, data leakages, and security breaches. So while evaluating SDN solutions, the level of security that the SDN solution brings to the table is important.