The medium and the message: SDN, mobility and the cloud of the future

HP's Stephane Laroche addresses the Networking Symposium at U of T
HP's Stephane Laroche addresses the Networking Symposium at U of T

“By deploying SDN, by simplifying the network, reducing my costs to manage a network, I can take the funds that I saved and put them into purchasing, developing and driving new business applications that help me to address new business opportunities.”

-          Ron Fuller, vice-president sales, HP Canada network solutions division

Wireless networks and workplace mobility. SDN and the next generation of networks for hybrid environments. Automated service delivery and the cloud.

We frequently read about how each of these trends will affect the future: how mobility will better connect businesses with their customers, how SDN will reduce the cost and complexity of network management, how cloud will enable delivery of new kinds of applications to an ever-wider range of users.

Intuitively, we know that these kinds of changes can’t happen in isolation, that a shift in one aspect of business behaviour will have an impact on options in other areas. Rarely, though, do we get an opportunity to take a step back and see how these kinds of trends will interact with – and potentially, amplify – each other as the future evolves.

The effect of this interaction between trends  over time was the main theme of an ambitious Networking Symposium sponsored by HP at the University of Toronto. Through the course of the program, speakers from both HP and U of T walked an audience comprised of senior engineers from industry and academia through a program designed to illustrate the interdependence of networking, mobility, cloud and the business activities that rely on connectivity. In presentations on “Wireless into the Future,” “New Paradigms for Multimedia and Security in Wireless Networks,” “Enabling Wireless Apps in the Age of 802.11ac and the Cloud,” “New Directions in Networking Research” and “Software Defined Networking: Architecting you Next Generation Network,” the speakers were able to connect the dots between wireless and the cloud, between SDN and collaboration, and between communications architectures and business requirements.

The presentation on wireless apps delivered by HP distinguished technologist Stephane Laroche provided an excellent example of the insights that can be gained from this approach. After noting that SDN “is a very good platform for innovation,” he moved on to talk about the link between cloud and mobility. According to Laroche, management of mobility through the cloud is “ideal for locations with limited IT resources” – including SMBs and branch operations. Cloud-managed networking, he said, provides many different benefits, including ease of installation/zero-touch deployment and the ability to resolve user issues remotely, reducing or eliminating the need for onsite troubleshooting expertise. Cloud-based management systems themselves can be deployed in multi-tenant environments that are scalable and offer high availability – meaning that small or isolated business locations can take advantage of remote capabilities, and that specialized providers, such as networking-focused VARs, can deliver effective and cost-effective support to a much wider base of customers.

Later in his presentation, Laroche outlined two types of benefits that can be derived from intelligent networking. Network applications can perform tasks like automated network management (load balancing, policy management, etc.),  minimizing the need for human input into these tasks. Meanwhile, the intelligent network provides a framework for value-added capabilities within many different vertical industries: these networks, Laroche believes, will enable customers to monetize their networks, providing a platform to enable organic business ecosystem growth and custom application development. By tying together the advances in technology with the business potential that they unlock, Laroche’s presentation, and others in the Symposium, landed at a common point: that an increasingly-capable backbone infrastructure will improve scope, speed and capacity across conventional networks, wireless communications and the cloud, and that these enhanced connections will enhance virtually all of the processes used in internal and external communications.

HP's Ron Fuller talks with about SDN

HP Canada’s VP sales for the network solutions division, Ron Fuller, was one of the hosts of the event. had an opportunity to speak at length with Fuller about SDN in the broader business/technology context of the Symposium. A video synopsis of our discussion is shown above; below, we've included additional highlights from our conversation:

InsightaaS principal analyst Michael O’Neil: Can you give us a quick idea of where we are with SDN, and why it’s so important in today’s market?

Ron Fuller: SDN is at the early stages of adoption in the marketplace…we're at the innovation stage of deploying applications that run on SDN. And HP is making significant investments in that area so that we can bring more developers to the table to develop applications on top of SDN.

In today's session, we’ve talked about two things. One is the benefit [of SDN] to customers in their own network optimization and what SDN can do to help simplify networks, take cost out of networks, be more agile. The other is that SDN is allowing for is the deployment of new business applications. It’s helping our customers to answer questions like “how do I secure my network?” “How do I allow people to access my network?” “How do I provide my employees with productivity tools, such as those we talked about such as unified communications and Microsoft Lync?” That's the other aspect of SDN that is driving a lot of excitement in the marketplace.

InsightaaS: One of the key benefits of SDN is its ability to provide a standards-based networking layer that reduces “lock-in” to a single vendor’s equipment – but the reality is that there is a lot of proprietary equipment in use today. How important is a standards-based approach?

Fuller: That’s one of the cornerstones of where HP is at, in terms of our development on SDN, and I think we are certainly the leader in this space.  We've always believed in open standards.  We don't believe in proprietary vendor lock-in, which is obviously counter-intuitive to SDN. We see the OpenFlow protocol as a huge advantage to our customers. [editor’s note: OpenFlow is “a foundational element for building SDN solutions” – a standard that is managed and endorsed by the Open Networking Foundation, “a user-driven organization dedicated to the promotion and adoption of Software-Defined Networking (SDN) through open standards development.” There are more than 100 members of ONF, including HP]

InsightaaS: What are the advantages of deploying SDN?

Fuller: There are really two advantages. On the network intelligence side, we look at what's being done to take costs out of existing networks, to make them simpler to manage, to make simplicity a key cornerstone of the customers network – and then the other side is the business intelligence and business enablement side, where once you've got a network that will support what you’re trying to do as a business, you can deploy applications for users immediately. Take the example of a bank with a thousand branches across the country [looking to deploy a new business application].  If I had to go out and upgrade every one of the switches and routers in those banks to have a common level of software to supports the application, it would take me 12, 24, 36 months.  Now, if I separate the data plane from the control plane, I can deploy that software out, push it out to those thousand branches overnight, and guess what?  The following day I can deploy that business application.

InsightaaS: It seems like HP is kind of unique in its positioning, in that you are a networking provider, envisioning SDN as a platform for the creation of business applications – but at the same time, HP is also a leader in supplying the servers that run business applications, and in supplying the mobile devices that access or in some cases run applications. So you approach this issue from multiple points of view.  Where do you see the impetus for SDN coming from?  Is it going to be network out?  Is it going to be server out?  Is it going to be client back?  Is it going to be a combination of these?

Fuller: I believe it's going to be a mix of all of them. Every day, when customers look at their environments, they face different challenges coming at them from different perspectives.  Some customers need to grow their businesses; they may be challenged in a certain customer segment, so they look at applications that will help address key opportunities for them.  Other customers may be looking to enable innovation through cost redeployment from maintenance to innovation.  So for them it's about, "How do I deploy applications, and how do I deploy networks that take costs out of that deployment?"  So maybe by deploying SDN, by simplifying the network, reducing my costs to manage a network, I can take the funds that I saved and put them into purchasing, developing and driving new business applications that help me to address new business opportunities.

What I'm finding more and more is that the business side of a customer is going to the IT department and saying, "We've got applications that we could deploy tomorrow that are going to help us grow our business."  IT either has to deploy these quickly, or it is going to continue to be a bottleneck.  And what ends up happening [if IT is unable to meet timeframe requirements] is the client side, the business side, ends up going around IT, and IT provides less and less value to the organization.  You start to see more and more CIOs reporting into the CFO, and you start to see more CMOs and the business side of an organization being elevated [in terms of IT authority], and you start to understand that the reason that its happening is that infrastructure is not keeping up with the demands of the business growth.

InsightaaS: So you think the key issue driving SDN is IT’s need to maintain the infrastructure required to support new business initiatives?

Fuller: I think it’s about agility. If I as an IT leader am capable of managing my network and deploying common levels of sophistication out in the network and common platforms out in the network, all of a sudden I'm no longer the bottleneck, I'm bringing real value to you.

If we go back to that bank scenario – you come to me as the customer service executive driving credit cards out into the marketplace and you say, "Hey Ron, I need to be able to deploy this new credit card application."  And if I say, "You know what?  It's going to take me 12 months to get the network up to speed," where are you going?

InsightaaS: I'm going to go to the public network and I'm going to run it through the cloud.

Fuller: Right. But if I say to you, "No problem, we have deployed an SDN network. I'm going to have to deploy that application across all of our thousand branches, but I can do that tonight and push that out."  And my network application is up the next day.  That's real value that is not just about the cost of the network now, it's about the opportunity available to you that you've opened up as a business. Now the CIO becomes an enabler for the business versus someone that unfortunately is putting up barriers to the business. And the network needs to have an element of agility to be able to do that. In the old-style networks of the past or on proprietary vendor locked-in types of networks, you can't have that agility. And that's where we see SDN really advancing our business model, advancing our customers’ businesses – and quite frankly, that’s why we're so excited about SDN going forward.