Software-Defined Networks: Lots of optimism, less knowledge

computer network

Federal IT managers like the idea of software-defined networks, but don't understand them all that well, according to a study commissioned by a leading SDN vendor.

The study released Aug. 22 by Juniper Networks said 34 percent of federal IT professionals plan to adopt SDN within two years. While 66 percent of the 250 surveyed federal IT management executives and IT professionals said SDN software would help make their networks more efficient and agile, there was a disconnect as to exactly how it would do so.

Juniper commissioned the study from Wakefield Research. Juniper, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Alcatel-Lucent, Dell and VMware are the leading SDN technology providers.

The percentage of survey respondents who believed SDN would help, said Mark Belk, chief architect for national government at Juniper, was on the high side compared to government respondents in past surveys on other technologies. He said that may be because SDN is seen as a kind of follow-on for the push towards cloud computing and virtualization. "SDN is not necessarily seen as a new technology, but as support" for those two initiatives that are aimed not only at more effective IT operations, but at overall cost-efficiencies, Belk said.

Agencies are not well prepared to adopt SDN technology, the study said. Sixty-one percent of the IT managers asked said they were not familiar with SDN. Among those who were familiar, 58 percent had two or more misconceptions about SDN implementation. For instance, Belk said, 11 percent thought it could only be applied at data centers, and 15 percent thought it required manual configuration.

Misperceptions are common when new technologies confront federal users, or private enterprises for that matter, said Tom Nolle, president and CEO at CIMI Corp., a technology, media and telecommunications consulting firm based in Voorhees, N.J. "Typically, there are three phases of technology review in the federal sector," Nolle said:  "giddy enthusiasm; a 'where's the beef' search for actual benefits; and tragic disillusionment" when it can't live up to skyrocketing expectations. Cloud computing and virtualization, he noted, both went through the cycle, with some agencies finding instances where the technology worked well and others learning that it did not live up to expectations.

To get the most from a new technology like SDN, a clear-eyed understanding of what it can do is a must, he said. SDN, he said, breaks network connectivity down into two layers: one is virtual connectivity in which overlay tools allow changes to be made quickly in the network; and SDN within the infrastructure which allows more efficient traffic management. The combination, he said, "allows applications to run free" on infrastructure without fear of damage to it.

That opens up a world of possibilities for federal IT managers, who will be able to centralize network operations, setting up centralized network control and continuous monitoring, and also take better advantage of cloud capabilities.

Since SDN centralizes control, Belk said, federal IT managers might be able to resolve help desk trouble tickets for network access or security issues in minutes or hours, instead of days or weeks. In turn, those quicker resolutions might allow IT operations to shift personnel from those tasks to others, resulting in more efficiencies in costs and operations to the organization.

SDN could be a game-changer for federal agencies, Nolle suggested, as the technology's efficiency tends to benefit huge users like network carriers. "Federal agencies are second only to carriers among those that could benefit the most" from SDN.

He warned, however, that at some point the technology's ability to provide substantial, tangible benefits diminishes. Proliferating virtual data centers in the federal government prove that point, Nolle said, and advised agencies to approach SDN carefully and thoughtfully, as skyhigh expectations are almost never attainable.


About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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