Jun 15 2022

Take a Measured Approach to Software-Defined Networking

SDN can speed innovation and modernization in a federal environment, but small projects are the best way to begin.

Scalable, flexible, downloadable — the number of superlatives that can be applied to software-defined networking is large. But the one piece of advice necessary for any agency that wants to deploy SDN? Start small.

SDN is not your predecessor’s network solution. It configures a network in a more centralized way, letting administrators adjust the flow and direction of network traffic to fit users’ needs. It enables real-time response to irregularities and improves existing security functions to better detect attacks. It’s a technology that naturally supports zero-trust architecture.

The advantages, as we’ve noted, are many. SDN can run on traditional servers but can also be automated and virtualized. It’s instantly downloadable software, meaning agencies can avoid supply chain issues — no more waiting for a physical shipment or dependence on a vendor to install new technology.

Agencies could see a huge spike in innovation with SDN, as they would no longer have to wait for manufacturers to create the products they need. That would happen just as fast as developers can write the code and create the capabilities.

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Why the Private Sector Also Needs SDN Experts

Yet there is a roadblock to immediate mass acceptance of SDN: It’s difficult to keep up with this rapid evolution of technology. Agencies need plenty of help to make this tool a reality.

Most government network experts understand traditional networking devices and processes. But when you virtualize a network, as you would for SDN, it’s different. The muscle memory that engineers have relied on is no longer useful because it doesn’t involve coding.

So, to deploy SDN and modernize a network, agencies also need to modernize their workforces. This presents another roadblock: Private industry is modernizing and deploying SDN at the same time.

LEARN MORE: Get the basics on software-defined networking.

It’s a rare case where industry and government are on the same track when it comes to a new technology. The bidding war for talent is already underway, and private industry is winning so far because it can pay more for the few workers who fully understand SDN.

But the advantages are significant enough that federal agencies need to find ways to overcome these obstacles. For example, with SDN, the data center’s physical footprint shrinks. The virtualization that comes with SDN gives agencies the opportunity to do more with less, and in a more flexible way.

Small SDN Projects Lead to Wider Acceptance

With SDN, some agencies have been able to give their data center infrastructure two completely different jobs. During the day, the data center serves customers and end users and does everything a traditional network environment should do. At night, it reconfigures itself and processes data. This lets agencies optimize the use of existing equipment and avoid unnecessary purchases.

Also, agency IT staff can route information based on the more flexible software-defined architecture, unlimited by physical cable connections or the need to coordinate with third parties to move data.

But again, the talent shortage rears its head: In an SDN environment, when trouble occurs, an IT worker can’t just go to the closet and see if the lights are blinking and the cables are plugged in. When the technology is virtualized, the skill set to support it requires a higher level of expertise.

REVIEW: How technology modernization is transforming the network.

SDN doesn’t have a standard configuration, so it doesn’t come with a troubleshooting manual. Workers need to understand how this technology works so they can break apart those software layers to identify what’s misconfigured or broken.

None of this means that SDN is impossible to deploy; it absolutely is not. But the learning curve can be steep, which brings us back to our advice on standing up an SDN environment: Don’t overthink it. Start small, and start easy.

This might be difficult for eager agencies that don’t want to wait two to three years and just want to turn SDN on, with all the bells and whistles on the first day. But just as you wouldn’t give a new driver the keys to a Lamborghini, you shouldn’t start big on SDN.

Follow These Tips for SDN Success

To get started, agency IT officials must first ask, “Does our current physical network meet our needs?” If the answer is yes, go no further. If the answer is no, then ask, “Will we take advantage of all the flexibility and enhanced capabilities provided by SDN?” If not, why bother installing something so complex? Don’t just buy SDN because it’s cool; understand what you’re getting your agency into.

But if SDN will fulfill a need that the current network does not, the best way to start is to develop a test environment so that if trouble occurs, it doesn’t affect critical systems. After that, move on to an existing area that would have a low risk of impact if something were to go wrong; say, a couple of virtual LANS or a few IP subnets — something with the least amount of complexity that could also be used as a training exercise.

EXPLORE: The evolution of edge computing and data analytics in federal IT.

Then, as the workforce gets more comfortable with the technology, they will be better able to articulate how the customer environment will actually work. They will have learned the language of SDN and will be able to explain things in that context. And they’ll start to see potential issues in advance, which will help them pick good spots for deployment.

Small projects give IT workers the chance to improve their capabilities and get to know SDN technology. Over time, as they build success, they will gain the knowledge needed to conduct a wider deployment of SDN technology and a fundamental understanding of how it works.

Plan carefully, and consider bringing in a third-party expert to advise and train others in SDN, leaving IT workers to focus on their daily work. Do this, and your SDN deployment will be a success.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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