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Written by Bhargav Shelat
on 02 Oct 2017

When it comes to telecom infrastructure, having an efficient and adaptable network is just as important as your server bandwidth and storage capacity. A software defined network (SDN) offers significant advantages over traditional architectures, including greater agility, flexibility, security, and ease of configuration.

 

Getting the Basics Right

The primary idea behind SDN is the decoupling of network configuration from traffic forwarding. This gives programmers more control over the network allowing them to directly define how each device sends traffic around the network. It also allows administrators to control network operations from a single console, which is located either locally or in a remote data center.

Given these benefits, the SDN market is seeing rapid expansion in the telecom industry. According to projections by International Data Corporation (IDC), the SDN market is expected to be worth $12.5 billion by 2020 with a CAGR of 53.9% between 2014 and 2020.

However, it's important to be aware of the challenges that may arise in the transition to any new type of data network. Network outages, impairment of diagnostic and monitoring tools, and scale and performance problems are all risks that can impact a migration. Therefore, it's important to plan every step of the move. The following best practices can help a smooth, less disruptive transition to SDN.

 

Is SDN Right for Your Enterprise?

The first question you need to answer is whether your organization will benefit from any SDN solutions. Think about whether SDN will translate into tangible benefits for your customers. While SDN is likely to improve your network's performance, you should consider the cost of upgrades against its potential return on investment (RoI). The cost of upgrading your network and services infrastructure can be a significant barrier, so it's worth checking if your most recent hardware refresh included SDN-capable devices.

An SDN can adapt quickly and automatically to both planned and unplanned changes across the network. A centralized, software-managed control plane allows for significantly simplified coordination and transition of these changes. This saves you from having to log into each network device through a command-line interface (CLI) and manually determine the ripple effect of changes across the rest of the network.

As such, SDN is often best suited to networks that will benefit from allowing administrators to dynamically adjust network-wide traffic flow to meet changing demands and needs. The cloud, for example, requires flexibility in how customers access computing resources throughout the day.

 

Charting a Smooth Path to Software Defined Networks

Once you've determined that an SDN is the right telecom solution for your organization, the next step is to map out a migration that aims to minimize disruption to critical network services. Successful migration relies on a understanding your objectives and deploying the right technical specifications to help you reach your goals.

The planning pre-migration is crucial to ensure a smooth transition. Drawing from recommendations by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), these four steps can make for a smoother migration:

1. Refer to similar use cases to determine likely network impacts

Studying high-profile migration plans may help give you an idea of some of the challenges you could encounter, such as network outages and performance problems. The ONF provides a set of real-life use cases from Google, NTT, and Stanford University. Each of these details the core objectives, network architecture, dependencies, tools, and validation processes used, providing a valuable starting point for similar deployments.

2. Educate your IT staff in SDN technologies

Because the skill sets for building and operating SDNs can be quite different from traditional networks, employees should receive the right training. Various academic institutions and telecommunications companies, as well as the ONF itself, provide learning resources for those who want to know more about SDN. The better informed your employees are on SDN architecture, design, and interfaces, the better prepared you'll be for a successful SDN migration.

3. Create a digital inventory of your network assets

It's essential that you have a top-to-bottom understanding of your existing network before proceeding with an SDN migration. In addition, the success of an SDN depends heavily on its management and orchestration functions having an accurate, comprehensive real-time inventory of physical and logical network resources. This can be especially challenging when you're dealing with a mix of legacy systems and complex data structures. If required, hire an expert in network inventory management.

4. Start small and scale up

Trying to migrate your entire organization to SDN in one go can be both difficult and risky. Any approach to migration should be planned and documented thoroughly before moving forward with the transition. You should clearly define architecture and service requirements of the target network, and detail which interfaces and devices will be impacted by the process. A step-by-step approach, where only one network domain or service is migrated at a given time, can greatly mitigate risk.

It's also important to outline procedures and metrics for post-migration acceptance and validation of the target network. Network emulation and simulation tools can also be useful for predicting network behaviour before real-world deployment. In addition, having a rollback strategy with detailed change logs is essential, in case there is a need to return to a previous working configuration.

From a business perspective, the right SDN solution creates many opportunities to save money and improve customer growth, thanks to its greatly improved scalability and configurability. If you want more control and flexibility across your enterprise network, it's a worthwhile investment.

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