SDN Needs Just One Good Application

Mike Fratto

Mike Fratto

Summary Bullets:

  • SDN needs new applications to make it relevant to enterprises and spur adoption.
  • Enterprises need to think of how a SDN can unlock new business and improve existing processes.

Gaining big benefits often comes with big disruptions, and that is true with SDN as with any other technology. One observation that struck me at both the OpenDaylight Summit and Open Networking Summit is that the potential for SDN is just starting to grow in the application space; and when it starts to pick up steam, the SDN movement will suddenly become very interesting for enterprises. Today, the SDN drivers for the enterprise are still relatively vague, only offering improved network automation and virtual machine movement. Microsoft has also been very aggressive in integrating Lync with traditional and SDN network products, which is also useful. These applications are beneficial, to be sure, but not too exciting. If SDN use cases just stayed at server virtualization support or incrementally better unified communications support, adoption would be slow and accretive. What will make SDN truly exciting are applications that enable new businesses and new capabilities. Two come to mind.

The first is what AT&T is doing with its Network on Demand service. Alan Blackburn, Vice President-Domain 2.0 Architecture & Planning with AT&T, who talked about his company’s continuing journey to SDN, described a frustration customers had with modifying services. Enterprise customers in particular have long complained about the time it takes to get new services provisioned even when there is no need to lay new infrastructure. Using OpenDaylight, AT&T’s Network on Demand streamlines service upgrades from weeks to minutes and supports flexible service capacity that increases and decreases as needed by the customer; and AT&T plans on adding new capabilities in the future. What’s remarkable is that AT&T’s new offering went from inception to deployment in six months. In that time, it had to get the OpenDaylight controller installed, tested, scaled, and integrated into its management and customer systems and build the portal. Engineers worked with OpenDaylight to identify bugs and push patches and new capabilities back to the project. Blackburn won’t tell you it was easy, but it is possible, and once momentum gets rolling the pace of development only increases. Rolling out Network on Demand was a mammoth task, but delivering networking is AT&T’s bread and butter; it’s core to its business.

As you can imagine, Network on Demand is a big hit with customers who can now take control of the cost and capacity of their WAN. AT&T’s story speaks more to the service provider market, and not every company will be able to DIY a SDN project, but it serves as an example of what can be accomplished once a need is identified.

In the enterprise space, there is a dearth of SDN applications which is slowing adoption. The already mentioned virtualization and UC support are two, and there are some capabilities with network security, but those aren’t going to generate excitement in enterprises. Changing process and capabilities will. Enter Elbrys Networks and its School App. The School App is designed to allow teachers to monitor students’ ‘on-task’ performance in order to identify students who are not on task – goofing off on social media, for example – and present to the teacher the time spent on and off task. The intent is not to punish students or block access, but rather to identify for teachers those students who may need assistance. What’s neat about the School App is that it runs on an OpenDaylight controller pulling up information about network activity, relates it to students’ names or IDs, and then calculates how much time students spend online during an assignment. It’s using network activity to surface student behaviors. Sure, there a lot of ways that the same goal has been and could be accomplished, but the power here is that the School App is using the network as a data source to inform, and hopefully improve, students’ learning.

It’s applications like these that can make SDN exciting – rapidly unlocking new businesses or intelligently modifying existing processes via a dynamic and efficient network environment. I believe we’ll see SDN take off when applications that actually make use of its capabilities take off. The question for your company is: “What can SDN unlock for you?”

About Mike Fratto
Mike is a senior analyst on the Business Technology and Software team covering the Enterprise Networking and Data Center Technology markets. He has extensive experience reviewing and writing about enterprise remote access, security, and network infrastructure products.

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