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What's the holdup on enterprise network software adoption?

Enterprise network software uptake is lagging due to a wide range of adoption barriers. The good news is that these challenges shouldn't be difficult to overcome.

Enterprises are much slower at adopting software networking than telecom service providers.

In fact, enterprises account for less than 40% of total SDN and network virtualization spending, according to Doyle Research.

The barriers to enterprise adoption include a lack of clear business drivers, perceived risk and confusion as to which technology strategy to trust.

Enterprise network software is more than SDN

Network software consists of both SDN and virtual network elements, including Layer 4-7 devices that provide unique value and are sold separately from the underlying network hardware.

In fact, network software includes a variety of use cases, including data center networking; routing; switching; WAN optimization; application delivery control (ADC), network monitoring and management, and network security. At this point almost every provider of Layer 4-7 devices has a virtual appliance option.

FUD in enterprise network software due to lack of maturity

Many large enterprises are currently evaluating a deployment of network software, but have fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the maturity of the technology. Essentially, they want to ensure that they pick the "right" architecture and work with a trusted partner to evolve their networks.

Unlike cloud service providers, who commonly adopt a software approach in greenfield deployments, enterprises must consider the impact of new technologies on their legacy networks and the hundreds of applications currently in use.

Tackling barriers to enterprise network software adoption

The following are ways to work around existing enterprise network software adoption barriers:

  • Prove the business case: Provide existing, public examples of network software implementation citing clear business benefits and challenges.
  • Legacy integration: The industry needs to openly address the challenges of managing new SDN/virtual network elements in a legacy network environment.
  • Provide use cases: In the rush to oversell network software, vendors often miss the specific, niche use cases where their software does provide clear benefits and is (relatively) easy to implement.
  • Address multivendor interoperability: All large enterprises have a multitude of network and security suppliers. Network software implementation must be proven to interoperate with equipment from leading providers, such as Cisco, VMware, F5 and others.

Understanding the multitude of network software options

Maybe the largest barrier to adopting software networks is wondering how to choose from the wide range of technology options. To begin with, there are a few key technologies to consider:

  • VMWare NSX: NSX is a data center network software overlay technology. Its initial use is driven by security requirements (micro-segmentation). VMware says it has over 250 paying customers for NSX.
  • Cisco APIC: The Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) provides automated provisioning and management for the data center network. In its early release, Cisco says it has over 200 APIC customers.
  • OpenDayLight: ODL is an open control platform for network programmability that enables a wide range of network services in software. ODL can be implemented as open source or brought from a number of network providers.
  • Network Software independent software vendors (ISVs): IT managers can choose from several dozen network software suppliers that provide functions including control of white box switches, routing, WAN optimization, ADCs and network monitoring. ISVs with announced customers include Adara, Big Switch, Brocade, Cumulus, Nuage, Pluribus, Plumgrid, Sideband and Viptela.

Enterprise network software case studies

While it's early days for enterprise network software, a number of large organizations have successfully implemented network software, both in greenfield and legacy environments. For example, financial services company Lucera has implemented SDN in both its data centers and WAN.

At the most recent ONUG (Open Network Users Group) meeting in October 2014, engineering firm MWH Global explained how it would replace much of its MPLS network with a virtualized WAN. Meanwhile, a number of other large enterprises discussed both current and planned network software implementations in the data center and LAN.

OpenStack drives network software

The significant momentum behind OpenStack deployments has been in the news recently. But relatively weak network functions in OpenStack will be a significant driver of network software deployments over the next few years. IT managers implementing OpenStack are likely to turn to commercial network software suppliers to deliver virtual network functionality they require.

About the author:
Lee Doyle is principal analyst at Doyle Research, which provides targeted analysis on the evolution of intelligent networks: SDN, Opex and COTS. Doyle has over 28 years' experience analyzing the IT, network and telecom markets. For more information, please see
his website and email him at ldoyle@doyle-research.com.

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This was last published in December 2014

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Alot of this has to do with the confusion in the market (eg. Are there any standards in place?) and the lack of skills for these new technologies (eg. what's the CCIE equivalent for SDN?). The economics of SDN will eventually reach a tipping point for adoption, but the people and process issues are still a huge bottleneck for wide-spread adoption. Big opportunities for vendors or open-communities to provide the clarity and training that customers desire. 
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