The SDN Syndrome: Where’s the pill in this jam?

By : |April 4, 2016 0
Image courtesy of jk1991 at freedigitalphotos
Is it where you inadvertently provision hardware on ‘this is too much’ side? Or around licensing or software islands? Or no-where at all? The bread tells best

Pratima H


“Because I am telling you so!” CIO A could make his point by screaming it raw sometimes.

“And that’s exactly why I am bathing in skepticism all over.” CIO B retorted with equal ferocity.

“You are just stubborn.”

“No, you are simply being a brain-bully again.”

“Why do you even discuss it with me if you don’t entertain opinions?”

“Yeah, right. Why do I never learn from my mistakes?”

CIO C, nursing some green tea till now, sat up and intervened at this point. “Can you both please calm down? And stop drinking that coffee. May that is what is riling you guys up?”

“No, it’s he who is poking me at the wrong places again.” CIO B threw his hands up. “Did you hear the utter nonsense he blurts sometimes? Stockholm Syndrome! ME! Have you lost all your marbles finally?”

CIO A was not the one to back down so easily. “Trust my instincts and experience. That’s what is ruining you. You need help, and immediately.”

CIO B rolled his eyes but CIO A kept aiming. “B, just look at yourself defending your vendors like this. Who in his right mind does that after being locked into iron-clad contracts, stone-age networking, physical switches and just no wiggle-room to experiment whatsoever? This is the classic case of feeling a bonding and sympathy for your captors. You are a typical Stockholm victim. You have been kidnapped and you just refuse to admit!”

“In that case, how better off are you anyway Mr. ‘I know it best’ A? You have tried the software-defined anything-and-everything revolution, haven’t you? Has it turned out the Eiffel Tower you were expecting?” CIO B jabbed at a vulnerable spot.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I mean. Has the whole SDN, NFC, SDDC amusement park not turned into a horror walk already? You sauntered into it with so much gusto. Look at the landmines you tiptoe around now. Let me wrap this for you now in your psycho-babble itself: If I suffer from a syndrome then you my friend too, are subconsciously struggling with a version of the typical Paris syndrome. Your lofty expectations and delusional anticipations do not match the city that you have arrived in. The language, the people, the conspicuous lack of romance in the air – in other words, the sprawls, the hardware-spill-overs, the license gridlocks, the very lack of savings in the air…”

CIO A was flaring his nostrils and possibly on the verge of turning these verbal punches into physical ones when CIO C piped in, “Guys, stop being self-appointed shrinks for each other. Just face the truth.”

Both the CIOs turned towards him like animals crawling out of the cage.

The truth? Well, when has that been easy to attack?

I am NOT a hostage

Gone are the days when clouds shadowed discussions everywhere. The SD prefix has entered the fray in a subtle but firm way and now everything from data centres, storage, networks, WAN and what not is under its able wings and grip. Separate the physical constraints by software-lising them in abstraction and virtualization. And bingo, all the yester-year troubles of squeezing out the best from hardware; of providing a powerful remote control for the TV, the refrigerator, the micro-waves of your IT house together; of the unusual visibility into what is where; of saving unbelievable slices of money as you do all that – all that seems finally plausible.

Networks seemed the prime candidate to try out just that ‘plausible’ magic.

SDN (Software Defined Networking) and NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) soon changed from ‘say that acronym again’ to staple-words in any conversation about networks.

The 2015 global operator survey on NFV Strategies by IHS gives both a 30,000 feet view and a fly-on-the-wall angle on what’s happening as SDN and NFV inch closer to the grounds.

Michael Howard, Senior Research Director and Advisor, Carrier Networks, IHS and principal author of the report captures the juice of ‘IHS Infonetics NFV Strategies: Global Service Provider Survey, 2015’ well. “Providers appear to believe that NFV and its SDN companion are a fundamental change in telecom network architecture that will deliver benefits in new services and revenue, operational efficiency, and capex savings.”

One may ask for top drivers for NFV investments and deployments here, and they turn out to be: Service and revenue agility—new revenue; Operational efficiencies—opex reduction and use of commercial servers rather than special purpose network equipment—capex reduction.

Ability to drive hard-dollar hardware and software savings creates a strong business case for SDN: Andrew Hillier, CTO, Cirba Image courtesy digitalart at freedigitalphotos

Ability to drive hard-dollar hardware and software savings creates a strong business case for SDN: Andrew Hillier, CTO, Cirba

Service providers around the globe are noticeably moving toward NFV with 35 per cent of respondents seen deploying NFV in 2015 and all major operators either deploying NFV then or planning to within the next few years. (Note that this comes from a survey of worldwide service providers that control over 43 per cent of global telecom capex and 39 per cent of revenue.)

Swing to how International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts sketch this, and we spot that the worldwide SDN market — comprising physical network infrastructure, virtualization/control software, SDN applications (including network and security services), and professional services — can pretty much be galloping at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53.9 per cent from 2014 to 2020, and in all possibility worth nearly $12.5 billion in 2020.

SDN is gaining ground as an innovative architectural model capable of enabling automated provisioning, network virtualization, and network programmability for datacenters at cloud-providers and enterprise networks. IDC observed that although SDN initially leaned in towards hyper-scale datacenters and at large-scale cloud service providers, now the stage is open for enterprise datacenters across a broad range of vertical markets even as the physical network, encompassing datacenter switches, could still account for the largest single segment of the SDN market in 2020.

Amandeep Singh Dang, Country Manager, Dell Networking, Dell India wraps the SDN advantage in some simple words. “SDN is absolutely an opportunity and not a pitfall. It allows you to simplify your management stack and hardware management. It opens the platform to a level where you can plug in third-party components with multiple vendors to play in. It enables to reduce physical hardware assets because of virtualization.”

Andrew Hillier, CTO and Co-Founder at Cirba, that provides analytics software, workload routing and granular control over hybrid cloud environments, echoes the good part of SDN when he opines that SDN environments no longer constrain a workload to reside on servers that are connected to a particular physical network, giving much more freedom of movement for VMs (Virtual Machines).

“On the plus side, there are huge potential advantages to having a larger pool of resource to optimize. Application workloads can be dovetailed to take greater advantage of larger pools of compute resources, increasing VM density significantly – 48 per cent on average. Where SDN is present, the opportunity exists to optimize ‘beyond the cluster’ by analyzing workloads on an enterprise-wide scale and making the best possible use of the whole portfolio of infrastructure assets. This is very important to the adoption of SDN, as the ability to drive hard-dollar hardware and software savings creates a strong business case for SDN adoption.”

Of course, these software-strokes around networking etc sound quite promising, but some stark shades of doubt and hands-on problems flank all the growth charts.

Where’s MY Paris

The big advantage of software in a hard-ware controlled game is that of abstraction and flexibility. But what about flexing this very muscle in the right way without any ligament damage? Specially with all the risk and complexity that accompany software when it dawns over hardware.

What about placing workloads so prudently and cogently that any chance of capacity wastage or bad allocation is averted? Can density of VMs be handled easily without capacity wastage? Do SDN and NFV run the vulnerability of hardware over-provisioning being the easiest place to slip on?

Over-provisioning and greater levels consolidation means more workload on server which creates major problem like hardware and server failure, explains Sreenivasan KR, Director- Global Operations at Infoholic Research.

Over-provisioning creates major problem like hardware and server failure: Sreenivasan KR, Infoholic Research Image courtesy Feelart at freedigitalphotos

Over-provisioning creates major problem like hardware and server failure: Sreenivasan KR, Infoholic Research

What SDN quintessentially brings in can greatly increase efficiency and agility, but the challenge is that with this increased freedom comes the greater need for controls over workload placement.

“The challenge applies to compliance constraints, security boundaries, and other business rules that can become difficult to enforce when workload movement is unlimited.” Hillier notes.

“Over-provisioning is a major problem, because it is one of the ways people have to manage risk in their IT environment,” B.S. Nagarajan, Senior Director – Systems Engineering, VMware India echoes the problem.

Dang chimes in too. “It is very easy to take a wrong call from a hardware point. Industry perception can be that SDN helps to tuck hardware into anything else. People with limited knowledge about stand-alone systems and different judgements around static hardware vs. fluid hardware can make it a different scenario. Now with the fourth generation of virtualization, both the risk and opportunity factors have gone up. Wrong-sizing or over-sizing of hardware without the scale-up and scale-out fundamentals can be a tough spot.”

Nagarajan takes the software-angle further. “Say you don’t know what your application is going to do or you don’t know exactly what you’ll need, over-provisioning is the traditional way to go about it.”

The challenge is double-fold though when you look at the backdrop that Dang adds in. “Our world is often a retro-fit world. Most changes happen as an overlay, in islands and end-users do not want disruption with what they are and have been doing. What people also do not realize is that SDN is not a one-track road but an overarching concept with multiple paths and products that may or may not converge.”

Sreenivasan recommends smart allocation here. “These issues can be solved by distributing workload and preventing critical running applications from crashes. Distribution of workload can also decrease the consolidation levels and increase the agility of servers. Secondly, high-level servers should be deployed which are enabled with redundant power supplies and memory protection technologies such as memory mirroring, memory sparing, etc. to overcome over-provisioning and consolidation hardware issues.”

IDImage courtesy of debspoons at freedigitalphotos

Over-provisioning is a major problem: B.S. Nagarajan, VMware India

When enterprises embrace SDDC and virtualize compute, network, and storage, they automate provisioning and greatly reduce time-to-market for IT applications and services. They also streamline and de-risk infrastructure moves, add-ons, and changes, advises Nagarajan.

But there has to be more than the board-game of provisioning that made CIO B question CIO A’s confidence.

Like software licensing and silos?

Je ne parle pas Francais

Is it likely that when one sprinkles the software-defined spice in the hardware pot, the result is a soup not so expected from a license perspective?

How do you keep a tab on license scope, actual costs, numbers and at the same time juggle the budgets without compromising license compliance and audits?

Virtualization neither protects from underlying hardware nor from license breaches, says Sreenivasan without mincing any ‘because-es’ and ‘unless-es’.

“Licenses for purchasing softwares are always expensive and confusing. However vendors are heading towards virtualization for ease of customers and are providing tech-friendly environment through various solutions. Virtualization has changed the software license management, yet has also created issues such as license breaches and more compliance issues to spoil software license agreements and revenue/subscription models.”

Hillier debunks many assertions when he underlines that software licensing is an area that can be particularly problematic, and without some form of workload placement control costs can spiral. “Because the cluster boundaries no longer limit VM movement you may have to license an entire environment for a particular package like SQL server or Windows, which can be very costly.”

Enterprises need to mandate compliance team, which should focus on tracking software licenses and guidance for software deployments including virtualization, cautions Sreenivasan. This action can handle the issues of software license management.

Attempting a different spin to the view, George Chacko, Principal Systems Engineer & Lead Technical Consultant, Brocade India avers that a large majority of virtualization newcomers focus their attention on the licensing. “In actuality licensing is the easiest part, because you fundamentally have to understand and apply only one vendor policy. Until that time, all vendors should severely improve their licensing documentation, highlighting how their model applies to the newest scenarios. Customers have to clearly understand which solution would provide the better return on investment when they embrace virtualization.”

Dang slices the space into purely-proprietary, open-but-pre-engineered products and DIY buckets. “Some customers love to be in the first bucket, not bothering too much about SDN’s future potential or open-ness. Anything which is pre-engineered can tend to be myopic if not sorted well. Customers should remember not to enter a bucket blind-folded. All said, proprietary buckets are surely more expensive than other ones. One has to be open and envision the SDN picture well to take real outcomes out of it. Open baskets give more functional and operational benefits than ala carte cards.”

As to the possibility of creating more islands with the software water streaming in on hardware grounds, well, that again depends on how an enterprise navigates it.

All vendors should severely improve their licensing documentation: George Chacko, Brocade IndiaImage courtesy of Just2shutter at freedigitalphotos

All vendors should severely improve their licensing documentation: George Chacko, Brocade India

Silos are very traditional and expertise in focus as different teams or departments exist. Issues from software silos can be overlooked by introducing hyper converged architectures, Infrastructure-as-Code, software-defined networking in hypervisors, and DevOps. These technologies break the barriers of software silos and increase security from time to time, Sreenivasan suggests.

For Dang, the problem again boils down to what bucket one is choosing. While an open, hands-on and flexible approach will not create any silos, the same cannot be assured with closed SDN offerings, he feels.

Back to Japan?

Albeit prolific with radical savings and box-breaking IT environments, SDN or NFV or any other-software-defined thingy can easily run itself into a pickle with many on-ground surprises.

The issue of skills or politics still hangs in the air even if one is able to suss out licenses and workloads. Standard networking was an isolated world and those static-networking skills will not fit in directly where the game is all about scripting, programming, boundaries blurring between storage and servers and about virtualization. Dang also reminds that Software-defined IT is as much a political challenge as it is a technical one for now that boundaries between networking and servers etc are dissolved; interpersonal issues and new role questions are bound to follow.

Software-defined IT is as much a political challenge as it is a technical one: Amandeep Singh Dang, Country Manager, Dell Networking Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at freedigitalphotos

Software-defined IT is as much a political challenge as it is a technical one: Amandeep Singh Dang, Country Manager, Dell Networking

What needs to be done is a pre-walk by CIO on all anticipated issues and readiness for un-anticipated ones. “The same people can make SDN successful and the same people can make it a failure.” Dang adds a wistful note.

As Chacko nails with commendable candor, the benefits of machine virtualization have seen broad adoption by enterprises of every size; but at the same time, an important gap has formed between the ways IT organizations install, provision, administer and use application software in virtualized environments and the way application vendors build, license and support their software. “From a networking, underlay perspective NFV and SDN would help smoothen the rough edges for enterprises adopting virtualization.”

Virtualization, Nagarajan argues, enables IT organizations to support growth and scale in an optimized and cost efficient manner. “This is delivered by two key improvements to the data center: First, abstraction and pooling of compute, storage, and network workloads on standardized infrastructure dramatically reduces service unit costs, enabling economics comparable to those associated with public cloud service providers. Second, by bursting to a public cloud based on the same SDDC platform, IT no longer must own capacity for peak workload conditions.”

Sreenivasan distills it this way. “Adoption of virtualization resulted in decreasing operational cost, slicing hardware, etc., yet in turn did not create any new problems which tech professionals should keenly observe, understand, and address for stable operations of data centers.” He sums up Infoholic Research’s perspective on major challenges that haunt SDN, SDS (Software-Defined Storage) and NFV as well.

While SDN struggles with a slow adoption rate, legacy network infrastructure, integrating service context, security, scalability and interoperability; NFV is confronting security concerns, multi-vendor lock-ins, congestion of network traffic alliances, network connection and storage issues apart from complexity in network management. SDS, on its own, is dealing with lack of apt skills, security, integration and increased-data-volume-led high storage management costs.

Software is dissolving into hardware. And Fast. But some questions are better than no questions.Image courtesy of Supertrooper at freedigitalphotos

Software is dissolving into hardware. And Fast. But some questions are better than no questions.

CIO B and A are perhaps right when they wrangle over these questions. Their intellectual quibbles are arrested short of turning into an actual brawl by CIO C’s tap-outs and what-ifs, thankfully.

But whenever A and B they get their toes in the door, they do not hesitate to tell CIO C something he already knows.

“You dear fellow, suffer from a syndrome too. The Uncle Tom one.”

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