Many consider software-defined networking (SDN) to be one of the most disruptive areas to have arrived in the ICT landscape in recent years. It fundamentally changes network management to enable a more dynamic, software-driven, and efficient way of improving performance.
By Joshua Ward, associate client partner at Decision Inc
Within the South African market, there has been a continued drive towards the cloud with numerous companies adopting a hybrid strategy. In turn, this has led to an increase in demand for reliable bandwidth from network providers. For their part, these providers have increased investments in their infrastructure to scale according to customer needs. From an ISP perspective, the focus has been on investing in burstable bandwidth network capabilities across their core infrastructure.
And, given how 5G is around the corner, the infrastructure overhaul will play a significant role in the SDN market not only in this country but across the continent. 5G will allow sectors that have traditionally struggled with access to high-speed and reliable connectivity at remote operations such as mining and agriculture to start benefitting from SDN.
To prepare for this SDN-led future, there has been significant consolidation of technologies. For example, SD-WAN devices are shipping with firewall and cyber security capabilities built-in. Inevitably, this will see companies look to reduce their Capex spend on a myriad of edge devices towards a single, managed service point per device with multiple features.
Initially, these SDN shifts will be more beneficial to those with cyclical bandwidth requirements. For example, the education sector that experiences ‘quiet’ months where schools and universities are closed for holidays. Burstable bandwidth will accommodate for high demand. Keeping this in mind, the ‘pay for what you use’ principle will apply to let these institutions better manage their budget during the year.
But how does SDN impact the network on a more functional level?
Most network requirements are built around three metrics – quality, low cost, and bandwidth. Traditionally, businesses were forced into choosing two of the three, i.e. a quality (reliable) network featuring high bandwidth capabilities would come at a high cost.
The advent of low-cost broadband, especially within the African market, enables businesses to adopt a hybrid approach of using SD-WAN on certain sites on the network while keeping the more robust MPLS network on critical sites. This lets clients benefit from increased bandwidth, higher network availability, at a more manageable cost. Those organisations not adopting SDN will continue to battle with trying to choose two of the three metrics.
Implementing SDN is not without its own challenges especially in Africa.
Typically, finding quality base connectivity is a problem. Clients also need to match this with their site or business requirements. The allure of implementing SD-WAN to increase bandwidth and reduce costs using broadband, often means clients are exposed to the unstable nature of broadband. Therefore, large head office sites should typically look at a hybrid approach of dedicated internet access or MPLS as well as a secondary medium to avoid contention waves during peak periods.
SD-WAN can deliver the goods when site requirements are appropriately matched with the correct under-lay services. An example of this is a satellite site with a few employees who need to connect back to the network. In this instance, a self-provisioning SD-WAN device, accompanied by a broadband medium, would allow for a low cost, quick deployment, and safe means to connect to the network.
Because of the infrastructure challenges in Africa, the biggest potential for SDN in the coming year is to link it with 5G. SDN devices could run over a 5G network so businesses could quickly deploy these to their branches or sites in a short amount of time. This means they would no longer be restricted by long time frames to get physical infrastructure in place.
Going the SDN route does not mean the company must adopt an everything or nothing approach. In fact, those who immediately roll out a full SD-WAN often expose themselves to downtime due to unforeseen issues. This can include unreliable broadband connectivity. Therefore, the SD-WAN road map should be done on a per site basis built around business requirements.
Clients must understand how SDN fits into their cloud strategy. Additionally, they must also see how far along their service provider is in terms of its own SDN rollout to be capable of delivering effective solutions. All told, the network environment has changed irrevocably. Now is the time to embrace this innovation.