Software defined networking projects: Channel can expect more work

SDN projects are hindered by complexity and a lack of client skills, but those factors could also help channel partners land consulting gigs with customers seeking expertise.

Channel partners looking for an uptick in the number of software defined networking projects should note that, even with a skills shortage, recently released reports suggest enterprise customers are willing to spend more on SDN engagements.

How much more? Recently published estimates from Technology Business Research Inc.'s 1Q 2016 Enterprise SDN Market Landscape revealed that global enterprise software-defined networking (SDN) revenue will experience a compound annual growth rate of 70% from 2015 to 2020 to $12 billion.

Estimates from IT research firm IHS showed that the global data center and enterprise SDN market -- which comprises in-use for SDN Ethernet switches, SDN controllers, software defined wide-area network appliances and control and management -- rose 82% in 2015 from the prior year.

Data from 451 Research reaffirmed the SDN growth trend. The market researcher's Q4 Quarterly Advisory Report found that 37% of enterprises are increasing spending on software defined networking projects. The survey, which focused on software defined infrastructure spending and growth trends, polled 900 IT decision makers.

That report also suggested there is more room for growth in the SDN market. Only 16% of respondents reported SDN implementations, 9% are involved with pilot or proof-of-concept projects and 18% are considering implementing the technology in the near future.

Complexity, skills deficit hamper SDN

While there is growing interest in SDN, many projects will be hampered by a skills shortage as well as a less than enthusiastic desire among IT executives to dramatically change their networking architecture, according to Simon Robinson, research vice president at 451 Research and author of the report.

Robinson cited one of key drawbacks of the technology: An SDN offering is complex because it requires buying software on a component basis to eventually engineer the architecture. That approach is more difficult than buying off-the-shelf appliances, he added.

Furthermore, IT decision-makers are concerned about the lack of skills to implement software defined networking projects.

"The response we've been getting from IT executives is that they just don't feel as though they have the skills internally to be able to implement that type of infrastructure," Robinson said. "Incidentally, it's not just that organizations don't have the people with the requisite SDN skills to be able to architect the environment in a different way, it's also about having the leadership skills to be able to take an infrastructure in a very different direction."

As with any new technology, SDN compels IT executives to consider what the actual benefit of making this change is, Robinson added. He noted that feedback from respondents indicated that while they may save money in the long run from SDN deployments, in the short term software defined networking projects can increase costs because of the expense associated with implementation, the cost of transitioning to a new architecture and hiring new people to work on SDN engagements.

However, because there is an expected increase in SDN projects, Robinson said, channel partners can expect to increase the number of their SDN engagements. Such engagements will focus on an architecture that typically runs on commodity hardware and relies on software to push information and policies between applications, data and the network. Channel partners will be relied upon to work through programmable interfaces, communications protocols, and abstraction software in an architecture that separates the control and data planes on the networking platform.

"There's going to be a huge amount of opportunity for channel partners because clearly IT decision makers will need some help in terms of actually focusing on the best path forward for vendor selection, assistance with making that technological transition to SDN and pinpointing where to start on an SDN project," Robinson said. "I think channel partners are going to provide a huge amount of support in addressing every aspect of that, especially on the skills side."

Skill sets needed for SDN projects

One company that believes it see exponential growth in the number of SDN projects industry-wide is Rolta AdvizeX, a Cleveland-based provider of IT offerings and managed services for enterprise customers.

Chris Miller, principal architect at Rolta AdvizeX, said SDN is quickly becoming an in-demand skill, but the supply isn't there yet because it's still a relatively new technology.

"Finding people with strong SDN skills is a challenge because it's a hybrid of network expertise and software expertise -- two sets of skills that tend to live under different silos in the IT organization. We've opted to develop SDN talent internally where possible since we're deep in both the areas of applications and infrastructure," Miller said.

For many enterprises, it's more than just a skill set issue; they need to rewrite their job descriptions and realign their IT organizations around SDN.
Chris Millerprincipal architect at Rolta AdvizeX

The ideal SDN engineer is someone who understands networking but also brings scripting and development skills to the table, Miller said. He added that networking and applications tend to be separated into different silos in most large enterprises and, as a result, IT professionals usually have strong skills in one or the other but rarely both.

Miller also said from a skills perspective, part of the problem is that many IT professionals have built their careers around a specific vendor platform, and SDN is much more open from a vendor standpoint -- so it's a case of looking at things differently and looking at different things.

"This comes to the fore with virtualization, because the two technologies also tend to live in different parts of the IT organization. We find that engineers tasked with SDN generally don't have a lot of experience with virtualization," Miller said. "That will change in the future as the two technologies come together, but for now it's a skills gap that many companies have."

For this and many other reasons enterprise customers need skilled IT personnel and a different approach when deploying an SDN offering.

"For many enterprises, it's more than just a skill set issue; they need to rewrite their job descriptions and realign their IT organizations around SDN," Miller said.

From the perspective of cost and time to market, Miller said it simply makes sense to bring in experts, particularly during the design or assessment phase.

"We've seen enterprises struggle down the road when they don't start off on the right path and encounter problems like hitting performance issues when they try to scale," Miller said. "Bringing an experienced partner into the project can anticipate and address those challenges in the design phase before they become costly problems."

Gary Middleton, group networking senior practice director, Dimension DataGary Middleton

Gary Middleton, group networking senior practice director at Dimension Data's data center networking division, said clients have a preference for deploying SDN offerings from vendors they trust, and very few have elected to deploy white-label hardware and open source networking software. Dimension Data is a global company that provides IT infrastructure offerings and services.

"Increasingly, engineers have SDN certifications from vendors, and that will improve our ability to identify and hire skills," Middleton said. In addition, the company has elected to grow SDN skills internally through a number of programs, which include increasing investments in vendor SDN certifications, internal training in software development, software lifecycle management and software methodologies, and establishing SDN labs around the world where engineers can learn SDN skills.

Software defined networking: Projects take differing paths

Looking at customer trends, Middleton noted that clients will not rip and replace their existing network for SDN and have a preference for waiting for the next upgrade.

There are two exceptions to this rule when it comes to SDN projects:

  1. Clients are building new infrastructure, and elect to go directly for an SDN offering,
  2. The SDN offering is based on software only, which enables the client to pursue a small SDN deployment without having to upgrade its network.

Middleton said while clients understand the basic notion of SDN, they are confused by the myriad of ways in which an SDN offering can be realized. Further complicating matters is that each networking vendor has its own approach. Additionally, new entrants to the network market and multiple startups are sending confusing and often conflicting messages. This confusing environment can be beneficial, but also an enormous challenge for channel partners.

"We view the lack of SDN understanding and skills at our clients as a bad thing because they're unlikely to allow any solution to be deployed that they don't fully understand, and it certainly slows down the adoption cycle," Middleton said. "It does, however, represent a good opportunity for our consulting services to assist clients with understanding SDN, to identify a place to start, and ultimately the deployment and ongoing management of an SDN solution."

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