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SDN market: Opportunity or disruption for channel partners?

Analysts say the SDN market will be very disruptive for networking VARs focused on hardware sales, with a shift in focus from hardware to software.

Software defined networking is on channel partners' radars right now and while SDN is a nascent technology, it is one that observers say will change the face of networking. When SDN takes off, they say, what has long been a hardware-oriented market will become a more software- and services-driven one.

Software defined networking is an architectural approach to networking that involves creating a separation between the software control and the hardware performance, said Brad Casemore, director for Research and Data Center Networks at IDC. In SDN, the control plane is decoupled from the data plane, which have been conjoined in traditional network devices, he explained.

It was obvious to me this was going to be the type of technology that would be very, very disruptive in the marketplace.
Joe Brownpresident, Accelera Solutions

Software defined networking offers greater flexibility and agility in a network, Casemore said, because it can speed provisioning, helping the network catch up with the rest of data center infrastructure, and it can also result in network virtualization and networkwide programming. "It's the road to virtualization and programmability and greater agility in your system. … In an era of intense virtualization and cloud, you need this."

For channel partners in the networking space, this all means there's a lot they need to get educated on about the SDN market, said Leslie Rosenberg, research manager for Network Lifecycle Services at IDC. One important lesson: Similar to what happened to servers when virtualization took off, SDN will mean longer refresh cycles for networking equipment, she said.

"The box itself doesn't become as mission-critical because you're creating virtual machines [VMs]," she noted. "So, the resell activity is going to diminish, [which will have] a lot of impact on the channel if you're a product-led, or a technology-led, transaction-based reseller, meaning you're leading with the box."

If a channel partner is more focused on services, however, "it's a totally different story," Rosenberg said. "It's about customizing the network ... so you become a much more strategic partner whose revenues come from consulting."

IDC's Casemore believes SDN will prove to be a big challenge for partners because a lot of the networking channel has traditionally been hardware-oriented. Echoing Rosenberg, he said that with everything contained in the switch device, the networking channel's main focus is on selling and supporting the box. "As we move through software defined networking and we separate the software control from the hardware brawn, are they going to be able to understand the changing business model?"

Joe Brown has already gotten a head start in the SDN market. Brown, president of cloud services and virtualization company Accelera Solutions in Fairfax, Va., said he first started researching SDN about a year ago as it related to building commercial cloud environments. He wanted to figure out what the business value would be and where it was already deployed, as well as how it fit into the cloud market and how SDN would affect enterprise virtualization.

"It was obvious to me this was going to be the type of technology that would be very, very disruptive in the marketplace, and there would be issues with big networking companies trying to deploy and encounter it because of what it does to very sophisticated networking gear" by rendering it obsolete, Brown said.

More on the SDN market

Partner on Cisco's SDN line: It beats competitors' but requires rip-and-replace

Cisco's SDN strategy critiqued by competitors

Brocade's ADC as SDN controller

Juniper's JunosV Contrail SDN product line

Brown learned that the technology "opened a whole new dimension to server virtualization platforms because it allows you to look into all networking activity on a given hypervisor host and be able to do a variety of things to that networking traffic." This includes putting in stateful firewalls, which monitor traffic as it crosses the hypervisor backplane. SDN also provides the ability for virtual or physical networking-security technology in line with the network traffic going across the hypervisor, to be able to do things like block or isolate that traffic and inspect it for different types of malware, he said. Right now this is done at the perimeter level; by bringing it down to the hypervisor level, security will be able to reside at the application layer, he added.

Accelera is now conducting proofs of concept and working to educate its customers about the SDN market. "There's a lot of discussion with customers around what it can do for them. ... People have been asking for this; they're unaware they've been asking for this, but they have for some time,'' Brown noted, since customers want ways to protect their VMs at a level they couldn't do in the past. "They were using a collection of technologies, and quite honestly, that was overly cumbersome and created a lot of performance issues."

Industries where SDN will be deployed first include financial services, healthcare and telecommunications -- anywhere data and security boundaries need to be established to separate regular data from high-risk data, observers said.

In the near term, IDC's Rosenberg believes partners can guide customers by providing strategic workshops to help them align business goals with technology requirements. When moving to any new technology initiative, especially something that is as “transformational as virtualized networks and SDN, it will be essential to understand the risks inherent with [that] new technology,” she said. Rosenberg added that many larger firms, including HP, IBM, Cisco and Dimension Data, are "taking time to craft their portfolio on how this will impact their customers in a positive way and what it will mean to their business. The portfolio will include assessment services, as well as methodologies, tools and best practices for planning, designing, migrating and deploying a software defined network.

"You have to think it through since it touches so much, so the manufacturers are the first to develop the intellectual property on how to do this," Rosenberg explained.

Eventually, "certain parts of the channel are going to get really savvy about selling services around the boxes,'' Rosenberg said. A lot of higher-value components of the solution will eventually be delivered around software and related services, she said. Hardware will remain relevant for a while, but over time, as the concepts of SDN take hold, she added, there will be less differentiation in hardware products.

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Do you view software defined networking as more of an opportunity for your solution provider business or more of a disruption to it?
Because this is a required emerging technology or field in this virtualized world