Saturday, June 22, 2013

SDN: which approach, network or IT?


After many SDN presentations about SDN by different type of vendors, I arrived to the conclusion that there are two distinct approaches on SDN: the network and the IT approach. Interestingly the two approaches lead to the same results from the network perspective, but completely differ on what is the implementation roadmap and the impact on the position of network operators in the ecosystem of digital service providers.



The network approach generally explains that by using SDN, costs (CAPEX and OPEX) will be reduced for the following reasons:
  • commodetization of the hardware thru virtualization = CAPEX reduction
  • automation of tasks by having widespread control of the forwarding plane by the software = OPEX reduction
When asking what equipments are included in the SDN , the vendors taking the network approach give the classic list of all the existing network elements like routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, protocol converters, base stations etc... etc.. However they consider the data center resources and the devices are attached to the network, and therefore not part of the SDN story.

These vendors are also very quick to indicate the flaws of the approaches taken by the non-network people or vendors who have an SDN story:
  • the controller will not scale,
  • the forwarding plane to controller round-trip is too slow if applied to each packet.
and therefore they are very convincing in introducing a new layer and new equipments (hopefully on commodetized hardware) in order to cope with these flaws.


The IT approach looks at SDN to solve a data center problem associated with the fact that if a quick availability of a new IT resources (computing, storage...) is needed, the network has to be agile and quick to configure. The network must also be very cheap to build and maintain since for IT the network is a cost, meaning that OPEX and CAPEX have to be as low as possible. And since the dynamic allocation of the IT resources is done by the software, it makes complete sense to actually let the software control the network.

The equipments included in the SDN story are of course the network elements, but also includes the IT resource themselves.

The IT approach generally considers approaching SDN by creating/implementing an overaly network with a distributed controller, controller to controller connections and controllers linked with the already existing distributed brokers (acting as controllers) of IT resources in cloud or hybrid cloud solutions. Implemented in this overlay network is the ability to cache forwarding logic which is a familiar pattern already being used in many other places (the web will never work if caching didn't exist...).

The vendors taking the IT approach generally don't have much opinion on the network approach or see it as an opportunity since once SDN is implemented in the network, it will be possible to expand the overlay network.

Implementation results 

What are then the different results of implementing SDN using the two approaches:
  • From a network perspective, there is not much difference since it is clear that the network will be cheaper to implement and maintain and will be more agile and quick to configure no matter which approach is taken.
  • From a roadmap perspective the IT approach is clearly pushing an outside-in roadmap (creation of an overlay -> to the core network) while the network approach is generally pushing to address first to expensive components hence an inside-out roadmap. However the network approach also implies the implementation of a new layer of distributed controllers. The two approaches lead to two different roadmaps but it may be possible to create hybrid roadmap to mitigate the risks.
  • From a provider perspective, the nature of the provider and the existence of the two approaches lead to a dramatic difference of positioning:
    • An OTT (Over The Top) provider will always consider the IT approach with a top-down view including the IT resources, the network and the devices (home/enterprise gateways, terminal) since it addresses key IT problems and opportunities (cost, agility, distribution of the load, distributed software....) and because the network group generally is either non existent or a minority within the IT organization. Since an OTT will generally create an overlay network, it is always possible to opportunistically expand it on top of the SDN network operator will implement,
    • A network operator will generally consider both approaches from a bottom-up view, unfortunately in separate groups: two groups (network and IT) or even three groups (core network, access and IT) and will generally not include the attached terminals anyway. Most likely the network approach will be picked since it addresses the current problems of doing more with less and because the network vendors are delivering a comfortable message with acceptable disruption.

    This situation is actually very similar to the one delivered by the same network vendors few year ago with IMS but instead of cost reduction (the new problem "du jour"), it was about innovative services (the old problem "du jour").  However once implemented these technologies have left and will leave the network operators in the same bad spot witnessing a continuously expanding ecosystem of high value OTT services (including the innovative services IMS was promising) while only seeing an ever increasing traffic of low level packets.

    In the SDN case network operators may be able to save costs (the constant increase of traffic may offset the savings)  but will not be able to be part of the IT supply chain and therefore will miss  the massively distributed cloud movement and its related solutions.

Call to action

As described in my previous blog, implementing SDN will give to the network operators an opportunity  to change the game and be part of the IT supply chain. However this means:
  1. eliminating silos (IT, network, access, terminal) within the network operator,
  2. while keeping a bottom-up view, network operators need to understand and embrace the top-down view which includes the distributed software part. Today software solutions are more distributed and dynamic/elastic than the network itself (in the 7 layer OSI model, the layer 7 has sub-layers that define a logical network where the nodes are software elements implementing API, the links are the relationships between these elements and the packets are the messages/events passed between these elements),
  3. making sure that the vendors (including the software only vendors) who have an IT approach of SDN are considered and evaluated in network environment,
  4. pushing the vendors who have a network approach of SDN to embrace the IT approach by:
    • treating any network element as IT resource (may be we should have more memory and computing pre-installed in network elements):
      • be capable of running multiple workloads (network workloads and IT/software solution workloads),
      • must be linked to the IT resource broker (cloud or hybrid cloud),
    • treating any IT resource (within data centers or on premise (home, enterprise)) as active SDN network element therefore must be linked to the distributed controllers either to provide or receive control information, 
  5. being more prescriptive on the solutions vendors/SI need to provide,
  6. considering any gateway or box installed on premise (home, enterprise) by the network operator as an active SDN network element and an IT resource,
  7. working with the device manufacturers to treat any subsidized devices as an active SDN network element and an IT resource with specific constraints, 
  8. partnering with IT resource providers to expand the type of IT resources available for the software solution developers and providers.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I hope you can write more good stuff like this article.

    Boston Network Services


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