SDN Generating Interest, Confusion

In its 2014 survey of the networking field, Network Instruments found the adoption of SDN growing rapidly, though many professionals can't define it.

Network Instruments asked 241 networking professionals to define software-defined networks, the most talked-about topic in the field over the past three years.

Of five options, "automated provisioning of network resources" was the second choice of survey respondents, with 34 percent picking it. Coming in first, with 37 percent of the responses, was "undefined, like a trip without a road map."

The question was asked of many network professionals—both network engineers and management—by Network Instruments in the vendor's Seventh Annual State of the Network Global study. The survey, released May 12, touched on a range of networking topics, from unified communications (UC) and 40 Gigabit Ethernet to big data and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) practices.

However, a key focus was on software-defined networking (SDN), which—along with close relative network-functions virtualization (NFV)—is promising to be the technology that enables organizations to create more flexible, dynamic and automated networks that can address the rapidly changing demands brought on by such trends as cloud computing, mobility, big data and virtualization. SDN essentially separates the control plane from the underlying hardware, making it easier and faster to program. NFV puts network tasks like firewalls and load balancing into software.

Established networking vendors like Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks and Hewlett-Packard are all building out their portfolios to address SDN, and the trend also has given rise to a range of smaller SDN-focused vendors looking for a foothold in a market that industry analysts believe will grow rapidly over the next few years. Infonetics Research analysts in December said the SDN market will hit $3.1 billion by 2017.

However, while vendors are embracing SDN and analysts see a healthy market, networking professionals still have a lot of questions about it, according to the Network Instruments study. That shouldn't be surprising, according to Brad Reinboldt, manager of product marketing for Network Instruments.

"As with any emerging technology, IT management is grappling over the definition of SDN, as well as its benefit and importance to the organization," Reinboldt said in a statement.

Among the survey respondents, one in five said they will have deployed SDN this year, and that number will grow to one in three by the end of 2015. Network Instruments officials in the report said that was "an impressive increase for a new technology that remains relatively immature by industry standards."

However, the results also indicate that SDN is still in the early-adoption phase that is still facing substantial skepticism. Twelve percent of the network professionals and managers surveyed each said they need SDN technology now, while 35 percent of network engineers and 47 percent of managers said they have no plans to implement the technology. Fifty-three percent of engineers and 41 percent of managers said they "will ride out the hype."

The key driver of interest in SDN is the need among organizations to make their IT infrastructures more responsive to the changing business demands being put on them (48 percent), with other top interests being able to more quickly dial up new services (40 percent) and to dynamically adjust resources (38 percent). Other reasons include reducing capital and operational expenses.

Network Instruments' survey results echo what other studies have found regarding SDN. Quinstreet Enterprise—which publishes eWEEK—released a study in December 2013 that found that SDN, despite the hype, is an emerging technology that still has low penetration in the data center, though network professionals are talking about it.

Less than 30 percent of the 321 IT professionals surveyed by QuinStreet Enterprise for its study—"2014 Data Center Outlook: Data Center Transformation—Where Is Your Enterprise?"—said they have deployed or plan to deploy SDN in the next 12 months, while another 40 percent have no plans to implement the technology.