This post first appeared on Packet Pushers.

Network industry pundits are calling for 2015 to be the year of software-defined networking (SDN). But for who?

It’s not likely to be the average small or mid-sized business (SMB). SDN is still too expensive, too new, and too undefined a technology to achieve mainstream adoption in the smaller network closets of the corporate world this year or even next.

But that doesn’t mean SMBs shouldn’t be getting ready for it. SDN is coming, and when we finally see its promise captured in an affordable and easy-to-use system, it’s going to change everything.

What are we talking about here?

There are as many definitions of software-defined networking as there are ports in a loaded chassis switch. So let’s start by pinning down what we’re really talking about when we discuss SDN.

This Wikipedia definition captures the concept plainly and succinctly:

SDN is an approach to computer networking that allows network administrators to manage network services through abstraction of lower-level functionality.

Right now your high-level network rules have to be manually translated and implemented into low-level device configurations. Ugh. I don’t need to tell you this stinks. Making changes at the CLI level, device by device by $%@!* device, is tedious and time-consuming, not to mention prone to fat-fingered errors.

But SDN promises to change all that by making it possible to translate policy into configuration automatically. It will give you the ability to make changes to your network without ever again having to figure out vendor-specific details.
SDN promises to give you more control, more agility, and better visibility into how your network is operating. For the business, SDN holds the promise of being a time- and money-saver even as it delivers a more stable and reliable network.

As it stands

There’s no denying SDN is an alluring concept, and as an industry, we’re pursuing it with fervor. In the last 12 months, we’ve seen significant progress in terms of standards bodies, open-source projects, and certifications.

IDC predicts software-defined networking will be an $8 billion market by 2018. Giants like Facebook and Google are embracing it and preaching the benefits. Awesome!

But at this stage, SDN really is only for giants. Large data centers and enterprises are the ones that can afford the new networking equipment and the specialized skill sets that are currently needed to bring SDN to life.

It’s not surprising that this is where the market finds itself. After all, SDN is still in its infancy. Nearly anything new is expensive and difficult at first. It’s the big players with the most to gain who step up to experiment and push the industry forward.

When does SDN get real?

So when is SDN going to become something tangible and real in the day-to-day realities of small and mid-sized business? Everyone has their predictions, but it’s safe to say it’s going to be a couple of years yet.

In 2013, research company TechAisle predicted that the small to mid-size market for SDN will “grow quickly” and total $204 million by 2016. $204 million? That’s less than 3% of IDC’s predicted $8 billion pie.

Here’s what I think still needs to happen before SDN can go truly mainstream and reach smaller businesses in a big way.

  • More abstraction
    We need less focus on what happens at the level of devices and wires, and more focus on being able to articulate your requirements in plain English. For example, in an ideal world, an administrator could tell his network management system, “I want to block guest devices from reaching our server rack,” and the system would do the work of figuring out how to implement that.
  • Better tools
    We need data- and GUI-driven tools that don’t require us to write code, especially since there are zero standards when it comes to which language to use. Python? C? Java? How about…none. We’ve got enough to do without adding coding to our skill set, thanks.
  • Support for legacy and new hardware
    We SMBs can’t afford to upgrade all our gear just to implement SDN. We need support for every technology, new and old. And it needs to work with every vendor too.

Start getting ready now

OK. It’s going to be a while before SDN gets major pickup in the small and mid-sized environment. But hold on a minute — that doesn’t give you a pass to ignore SDN until then.

In fact, the savvy administrator will start laying the groundwork now for smooth SDN adoption when the time comes. Here’s what to work on between now and then:

  • Virtualize your network. Virtualizing servers on your network brings all kinds of benefits. It can increase your network’s capacity without increasing its hardware. Less hardware means your network is less expensive to build, configure, maintain, and manage. Ultimately, you’re setting the stage for SDN, which plays very well with virtualized environments.
  • Know your network inside out. Map the whole thing and capture every config so you know exactly how your network is running. You can’t automate what you can’t see.
  • Document your time-sucks. Think about the time-intensive, repetitive tasks you’re doing on your network today and document the heck out of them. SDN can automate processes — but you first have to know what those processes are. Consistency is important, too. As you’re documenting, if you notice a whole bunch of one-off processes, it’s time to see where you can set a single standard and implement it.
  • Stay current. Keep educating yourself on the latest happenings in virtualization and cloud technology. A lot is changing in this emerging space, and you don’t want to be scrambling to bring yourself up to speed when SDN becomes a reality for you.

Bottom line?

Stay sharp, watch out for SDN content tailored to your smaller environment, and prime your network now. When software-defined networking does finally arrive on your doorstep, you’ll be ready to reap the benefits of faster, easier network management.