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Software Defined Networking (SDN): The What & Why

City skyline overlayed by communication icons
June 2, 2016

We are currently going through one of the most transformational periods in network technology and it’s being driven by the Internet of Things (IoT).  In the last year alone, roughly 20 million Fitbit devices were sold, Apple’s Watch accounted for over half of the smartwatch market and a few companies revealed ‘interesting’ connected objects at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (who doesn’t need a GPS-enabled connected walking stick  or a diaper sensor that analyzes your baby’s ‘creations’ and evaluates his/her health?).  Cisco predicts that by 2020 there will be over 50 billion ‘things’ that are connected.[1] Our world is transforming to a world of always-connected devices that send signals across the network to provide us with a real-time utility.  Imagine the strain this is putting on our networks and the people behind the scenes who are pushed to keep them fast, resilient and secure. This is where Software Defined Networking (SDN) comes in.

The What

Cisco defines SDN as the convergence “of the management of network and application devices into centralized, extensible orchestration platforms that can automate the provisioning and configuration of the entire infrastructure… [giving businesses the ability to] deliver new applications and services in minutes, rather than days or weeks required in the past.”[2]  The Charlotte Business Journal recently held a SDN panel event, featuring technologists from Ally Bank and Cisco. Ally Bank’s IT executive, Bill Twele, explained that his organization is currently implementing SDN, which enables them to segment their network and be more agile and secure. Institutions such as banks are heavily regulated which puts an extra strain on their resources.  The IT team is often required to provide reports for audits.  Policy-driven networking, or SDN, makes IT easier and faster to provide the auditors the reports they are looking for.

Additionally, software defined networks are dynamic and resilient, in order to keep up with the real-time demands of the IoT.  In the last 6-12 months, secure mobile payment methods such as Apple Pay have started to gain more traction.  I can walk into a Walgreen’s or Whole Foods store, shop as usual and then waive my phone over the payment reader, scan my fingerprint and get on with my day.  Imagine all the things that need to happen – securely and in the fastest way possible – through the network in order to allow me this convenience.

The Why

SDN provides some real business impact to organizations that adopt it, but also poses some challenges.  Some of the drivers for adoption include:


The world is going digital and end user expectations are changing rapidly.  Most of us cannot even fathom living without WiFi or Internet, and we cannot stand having to wait more than a few seconds for our app to load or our pictures to be shared with millions of people instantly.  This has created a culture of ‘instantly now’ which permeates into everything we interact with daily.  Businesses are challenged to deliver applications to end users faster than ever before.  A business’s competitive advantage often lies in speed to market: being able to deliver the latest and greatest in the quickest way possible so they can be first to market and gain the maximum possible market share.  IT teams that can deliver applications that enhance their business’s competitive advantage (e.g. improve customer experience, lower costs, improve efficiencies), will come out as winners in the end.


“There are two types of companies: those that have been breached and they know it, and those that have been breached and they don’t know it,” explained Bill.  It’s no longer a matter of whether a business will be breached but rather a matter of when.  As recent high-profile breaches prove, there are more than the ‘real’ costs of breaches (lawsuits, compensation, fixes, etc.); one also has to consider the ‘hidden’ costs of ruined corporate reputations which can dramatically affect a company’s valuation and eventually profits to investors.  Segmenting a network enables businesses to contain security threats in a cost-efficient way.  Those that are prepared to deal with security threats the best, will be able to survive this era.  Detection, but also remediation of threats, are an important component of a business’s strategy and it has be visible all the way to the board level as security decisions can affect a company’s valuation.

Advanced Analytics

Having almost every part of our lives be ‘connected,’ turns the network into a sensor.  Businesses are quickly realizing that not only do they need to be able to quickly transmit information across the network but that they can also harness the power of that data being transmitted by conducting real-time analytics.  Turning those analytics into actionable insights can become a competitive advantage for some and can make the difference between a company that makes it and one that doesn’t.

But there are also challenges that come with SND.

Need for collaboration

“You can no longer be the guy that stays in the closet and quietly handles the network,” explained the IT executives on the panel.  A world of SDN means a heightened need for collaboration among application, security and infrastructure teams.  They can no longer work in silos and expect things to work.  They all need to be aware of where their applications are, who needs access to them and what the data paths are.

Job transformation

Twele explained that one of the biggest hurdles he faced at first was adoption among his staff, especially his networking staff.  They saw this SDN ‘thing’ as taking over their jobs and felt that they were going to be left behind or replaced.  The truth is, SDN is going to transform traditional networking jobs – but it does not have to be seen as a threat.  Training of staff on this new technology and showing them where they fit into this new schema, can become a very positive experience as they now get to work on the latest and greatest technology out there.

“We’ve always done it this way” syndrome

Many IT leaders may experience resistance on SDN or similar technologies due to the fact that either their internal staff do not see the need for it or the business has made a certain investment in existing infrastructure (e.g. physical hardware, firewalls, etc.) that need to be capitalized on and deliver an ROI.  Figuring out how to smoothly transition to SDN, rather than having a harsh instant switch, can mean success for such an initiative.  IT leadership will have to figure out how to layer SDN on top of their existing investments to provide the best result, rather than starting from scratch.

In recent years Software Defined Networking has been a trend that has created a lot of buzz. However, in the next few years it will likely come to life and start to become an actual strategy that will be incorporated into day-to-day business operations.

[1] http://www.smartgridnews.com/story/50-billion-connected-iot-devices-2020/2015-04-21

[2] http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/software-defined-networking/overview.html

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