The business case for deploying software defined networks

Verizon product management team leader Shawn Hakl offers federal CIOs a glimpse of what to plan for in network technology, and how to justify the cost of moving to SDN.

Shawn Hakl, VP, Product and New Business Innovation at Verizon

Editor’s Note: This article was produced for and sponsored by Verizon. 

“It’s exciting time to be a network professional,” says Shawn Hakl, especially from where he stands as a member of Verizon’s Product and New Business Innovation group.

“It’s rare that you get an opportunity to ride two simultaneous waves of disruption: The whole world is going mobile, and as a result the network is going virtual,” he said in a recent interview with FedScoop about where network technology is heading.

Hakl, a 25-year global telecom veteran who specializes in IP network platforms, appreciates how that disruption makes it more challenging for CIOs to map out their investment strategies. But it also presents some exciting opportunities now, he said, to operate more agilely using software defined networks.

“For the typical CIO, their basic mission of connecting users to applications and data simply, securely and reliably hasn’t really changed, “he said.  “The challenge is that the architecture in which they’re doing that has gotten a lot more complex.”

Part of the complexity comes with meeting the IT needs of system users and customers who have come to expect a mobile-first experience. That entails managing a vast range of third-party applications, from collaboration platforms to point-to-point video, almost of all of which put new bandwidth and security demands on networks that in most cases were designed for a different age.

“Simultaneously, you’ve got cloud-based applications, which lead to less visibility and control,” he said. “As a result, CIOs have to develop new skill sets, to do the same mission, but in a world where workloads and applications moving through the network are much more variable in demand from the endpoint.”

Compounding — and exploiting — all of that complexity is the surge of cyber thieves who continue to discover new or more ingenious ways to bypass traditional network safeguards.

The other challenge for CIOs is the need to improve network performance in the face of rising overall demands and limited budgets.  Clearly, software defined networks offer CIOs their best opportunity in years to make significant improvements in their network operations.

But the question remains, how do you move forward investing in SDN? That’s particularly true for CIOs in government, where IT budgets remain tight and are typically funneled into keeping legacy systems operating.

“Typically what we see people doing is deploying new sites, or refreshing existing equipment to the new gear and operating in parallel with their existing WAN, or their existing networking solutions for a period of time,” Hakl said.

He offered three examples of the kind of tasks where deploying SDN technology now makes economic sense for CIOs.

One example is a large-scale deployment of a cloud-based application.  “In many cases, these technologies can better support that kind of deployment,” he said.

Another example is where a CIO needs to “implement collaboration, or video-intense, applications, where you’re introducing high volumes of new bandwidth to traditional network solutions,” he said.

A third example might be “where a CIO is launching a global security policy, and needs to ensure it’s deployed quickly and universally. These technologies are really providing better answers than the traditional network technologies,” said Hakl.

In each case, “It means their new sites are out quicker and [IT shops] are refreshing their sites to more capable gear.  There are lots of possibilities for this technology, but these are the ones that are being executed now,” he said.

Making the move to SDN is more than an upgrade in technology; it’s shift in strategy, but one with big potential payoffs, according to Hakl.

“I believe an effective deployment strategy that CIOs should consider is to move the control of your network from the hardware-based implementation, to more of a software-based layer, so you’ve got that intelligence in a software layer, sitting above the network,” he said.

Once you’ve got a software defined network, that you can manage centrally —

where you can run policies globally, versus having to deploy equipment and manage policies individually to every device on the network — that in itself adds value. But on top of that, it gives you the ability to integrate virtual functions as they become available,” he said.

Virtualized network functions can be integrated without deploying new equipment — often “by just a reconfiguration of your routing, so you’re not beholden to making a large upfront capital purchase,” he said. “And you’re able to deploy this functionality faster and with less cost.”

He predicted that over time, as the standards and equipment evolve, providers will be able to offer a broad catalog of virtualized network functions and CIOs will have a wider choice of players to choose from.

He cautioned that CIOs still must maintain a firm grasp of the business value these IT services can offer users, but argued that agility and enhanced control have the potential of adding more value to the network than “perfect architecture.”

He also urged CIOs to “recognize that virtualization in the network will take the same course virtualization in the data center took,” he said. “This is a long term evolution; it’s not simply plug-and-play yet. So make sure you have a realistic plan around the state of the technology, being aware of its capabilities and having a good understanding of how it can support your initiatives.”

From a larger planning perspective, CIOs must also deal with a fundamental shift “away from a large scale, multi-year capital expenditure model, trying to predict demand over five years, to trying to capitalize on flexible consumption models and giving controlled choices to your users.”

At the same time, IT leaders have to have a way to control network performance. “As enterprises are looking at implementing cloud based solutions, you still need end-to-end visibility and control from a compliance perspective to use these pay-as-you-go, utility based models. These technologies allow you to take advantage of those models,” he said.

Finally, “Start planning for the skill set change that the move to virtualization requires. You’re moving away from a hardware-oriented, proprietary vendor focus,” where IT leaders spent a lot of time focused on certifications and knowledge of proprietary platforms, “to a more software-oriented, large scale software factory methodology, learning agile DevOps techniques,” he said.

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