Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

SDN is in its early stages, but the technology promises to fundamentally change how networks and data centers operate.

In a recent survey by Cisco Systems, 71 percent of the IT professionals who responded said they plan to deploy software-defined networking technology this year for a variety of reasons, from creating more programmable networks to reducing costs.

In the same survey, 34 percent said that thus far, they had seen an actual deployment of SDN technology as often as they've seen Elvis, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

That about sums up what's going on right now in the high-profile software-defined networking market, a space that has garnered a massive amount of attention and interest from vendors, analysts and businesses, but has seen relatively little in the way of actual implementation and deployment.

Like virtualization and cloud before it, "SDN" is getting attached to a lot of vendor products and initiatives—what Jason Matlof, vice president of marketing at SDN startup Big Switch Networks, calls "SDN washing." Now established tech companies and startups alike are maneuvering to set themselves up as the go-to SDN vendor.

But at this point, outside of big Web 2.0 companies and cloud providers such as Amazon and Google, which are always looking for new technologies to drive down costs in the their massive data centers, there are a few instances of businesses using SDN in production settings, though Cisco and other large vendors talk about dozens of customers testing products.

Speaking of the hype around SDN, Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, wrote in a post on the No Jitter blog site that "most companies I talk to couldn't give two hoots about SDN. Additionally, most application developers really have no concept of how to leverage an SDN to build more intelligent applications. There are a couple of exceptions, though. Most of the service providers I've interviewed do have an interest in SDNs, particularly to enable virtual services and manage the network more easily. Also, the only applications right now that can leverage SDNs are ones that rely heavily on the network, like UC services."

However, that's not to say SDN is all hype. The technology holds the promise of solving some significant problems in the data center around issues of networking complexity, cost programmability, flexibility and scalability. So both vendors and analysts are expecting the number of SDN test drives to grow as 2013 wears on. Real deployments of SDN systems are expected to start taking off late this year and early next.