Software-Defined Networking – as a technology approach – is not really new. Companies from all over the globe have been talking about SDN for almost a decade now. But its impact is still growing and changing the dynamic of how IT professionals do their jobs and how network decisions affect the business.

Enterprise CIOs and telecom managers would be misguided in assuming they can evaluate modern SDN-enabled networks with the same speed and cost metrics they used on traditional network purchases. Software-defined networks have fundamentally changed what networks really are and what they may yet become. They are platforms that must be evaluated for how they enable digital transformation in the business rather than how fast they transport a given set of bits from point A to point B.

SDN not only virtualizes the network, but its many implementations – SD-WAN, etc. – bring their own capabilities that go well beyond transporting bits. These modernized network platforms require a change in purchase criteria, vendor evaluation and perhaps a change in IT culture as well.

From Traditional Networking to Software-Defined Networking

Many of us remember the “dumb pipe” era of networks. They were limited by network access availability and often incredibly slow bandwidth speeds. This is no longer the case, as gigabit symmetrical fiber is available from CenturyLink and others in more and more places. Branch offices, co-working centers and even remote executives along with skilled workers can now get 200+ megabits in many more locations than what was available years ago.

What do you do with that kind of ubiquitous bandwidth? The “new” SDN network paradigm completely changes the concept of network design. No longer do you have to place expensive, complex-to-manage user devices close to user locations. SDN gives the network designer, IT manager and operations help desk better control and options for faster response to outages, overloads and overall network performance. However, what “software-defined” networking or SD-WAN really does is give the CIO the command of a platform to respond to the needs of the business in scaling, performance, reliability and security issues – but also to enable the new capabilities the business needs for digital transformation.

Of Platforms and Ecosystems

SDN solutions bring improved network access, with fewer physical parts and greater performance and agility. They still need to be blazing fast, so don’t ignore that on your checklist. But, as platforms, they also bring ecosystems of technologies, applications and new capabilities that can be enabled across the network. The network is both the connection between points A and B and the gateway into every other capability the enterprise requires.

This is a much more complex decision than in the past. If you pick the network in a vacuum, you are potentially taking on a huge management burden as you piecemeal all the other capabilities on top of the network. Or you can pick a vendor knowing that you’re actually buying into a platform and the ecosystem behind it. That vendor tests all the other capabilities and ensures they are enabled over the network. That vendor works with you to understand what you will need as your business evolves and works with its ecosystem to bring the latest and greatest capabilities to your enterprise – whether that’s security, cloud innovations, artificial intelligence, analytics or things we don’t even know about yet.

In short, you are picking an IT business partner today, not just a bandwidth vendor. That is a different evaluation process, maybe even a radical enough change that the people doing the evaluation have to change as well.

The risks and rewards have never been higher. You need to pick the right platform, the right ecosystem and the right partner.

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