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When will software-driven networks become the new normal?

SDN engineer Darien Hirotsu explains what it will take for SDN to become the industry standard, with software-driven networks outnumbering their traditional counterparts.

The software-defined networking (SDN) takeover is happening as we speak. But before SDN can become the "new normal," the industry needs to address the current skill set gap. This is not to say that network engineers must become software engineers or vice versa. Some cross-training is necessary, however, and in many cases it is already underway. For example, AT&T Senior Executive Vice President John Donovan said at Open Networking Summit 2015 that the company is sending thousands of IT professionals back to the classroom. Software-minded folk simply think differently than us network engineers, so it will take some time and effort for us to collectively level up and prepare for the software-driven network era.

We will likely see general SDN become the industry standard before any single implementation or protocol emerges as the dominant player. For example, there are dozens of ways to approach multi-tenancy -- some solutions use protocols such as virtual extensible LAN and Ethernet virtual private network while others leverage OpenFlow. Any of these protocols could make up solutions that fall under the SDN umbrella, so we should recognize that, collectively, SDN approaches will become the norm prior to any of these specific implementations becoming the clear "winner."

SDN initiatives continue to advance, bringing us closer to the day when most if not all networks will be software-driven. For example, ON.Lab recently presented a demonstration illustrating Central Office Re-architected as Data Center (CORD), which combines network functions virtualization and SDN. CORD is on an aggressive schedule targeting Phase 1 trials in June 2016 and multiple service provider deployments by 2017. The SDN shift is happening now, and more and more customers are constantly speaking out about their production experiences.

I urge fellow technologists to start this software-driven network journey today. Do not wait. Anyone who waited to see whether IS-IS or OSPF would win the IGP battle was clearly left behind. Network engineers can approach this shift in a number of places and a variety of ways, none of them "right" or "wrong." A good start: Consume the basics of a high-level programming language to offload simple tasks. Also, if you are stuck operating legacy network devices, look to see where NETCONF may be a fit for programmatic access into devices. Architects are constantly designing new SDN technology to bring software-driven networking to the forefront in the industry.

Next Steps

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This was last published in July 2015

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