SDN and the IT Toolbox


There’s been a *lot* of talk about software-defined networking (SDN) being the next great thing to change networking. Article after article has been coming out recently talking about how things like the VMware acquistion of Nicira is going to put network engineers out of work. To anyone that’s been around networking for a while, this isn’t much different than the talk that’s been coming out about any one of a number of different technologies over the last decade.

I’m an IT nerd. I can work on a computer with my eyes closed. However, not everything in my house is a computer. Sometimes I have work on other things, like hanging mini-blinds or fixing a closet door. For those cases, I have to rely on my toobox. I’ve been building it up over the years to include all the things one might need to do odd jobs around the house. I have a hammer and a big set of screwdrivers. I have sockets and wrenches. I have drills and tape measures. The funny thing about these tools is the “new tool mentality”. Every time I get a new tool, I think of all the new things that I can do with it. When I first got my power drill, I was drilling holes in everything. I hung blinds with ease. I moved door knobs. I looked for anything and everything I could find to use my drill for. The problem with that mentality is that after a while, you find that your new tool can’t be used for every little job. I can’t drive a nail with a drill. I can’t measure a board with a drill. In fact, besides drilling holes and driving screws, drills aren’t good for a whole lot of work. With experience, you learn that a drill is a great tool for a range of uses.

This same type of “new tool mentality” is pervasive in IT as well. Once we develop a new tool for a purpose, we tend to use that tool to solve almost every problem. In my time in IT, I have seen protocols being used to solve every imaginable problem. Remember ATM? How about LANE? If we can make everything ATM, we can solve every problem. How about QoS? I was told at the beginning of my networking career that QoS is the answer to every problem. You just have to know how to ask the right question. Even MPLS has fallen into the category at one point in the past. MPLS-ing the entire world just makes it run better, right? Much like my drill analogy above, once the “newness” wore off of these protocols and solutions, we found out that they are really well suited for a much more narrow purpose. MPLS and QoS tend to be used for the things that they are very good at doing and maybe for a few corner cases outside of that focus. That’s why we still need to rely on many other protocols and technologies to have a complete toolbox.

SDN has had the “new tool mentality” for the past few months. There’s no denying at this point that it’s a disruptive technology and ripe to change the way that people like me looking at networking. However, to say that it will eventually become the de facto standard for everything out there and the only way to accomplish networking in the next three years may be stretching things just a bit. I’m pretty sure that SDN is going to have a big impact on my work as an integrator. I know that many of the higher education institutions that I talk to regularly are not only looking at it, but in the case of things like Internet2, they’re required to have support for SDN (the OpenFlow flavor) in order to continue forward with high speed connections. I’ve purposely avoided launching myself into the SDN fray for the time being because I want to be sure I know what I’m talking about. There’s quite a few people out there talking about SDN. Some know what they’re talking about. Others see it as a way to jump into the discussion with a loud voice just to be heard. The latter are usually the ones talking about SDN as a destuctive force that will cause us all to be flipping burgers in two years. Rather than giving credence to their outlook on things, I would say to wait a bit. The new shinyness of SDN will eventually give way to a more realistic way of looking at its application in the networking world.  Then, it will be the best tool for the jobs that it’s suited for.  Of course, by then we’ll have some other new tool to proclaim as the end-all, be-all of networking, but that’s just the way things are.

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