Software is eating the world. Soon, hardware may cease to hold meaning; we're already talking less about hardware and more about apps. Why? All IT is becoming software-defined, and it's happening at a dizzying pace.
“The drive for digital transformation means enterprises are embracing cloud in all its forms, and with it, the Internet of Things (IoT),” says Hubert Da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint. It has become fashionable to talk about software-defined everything – or SDx – but it's worth considering the main elements that are disrupting IT right before our eyes.
What is software-defined networking?
Software-defined networking (SDN) makes IT quicker and easier. "SDN changes the way companies build and manage their IT environments, allowing them to be more flexible," says Mark Lewis, EVP Communications & Connectivity, Interoute, adding that SDN should also allow customers to change their own IT footprint.
At its core, SDN is about capacity, and using AI to optimise networks so they don't creak under the pressure of streaming video and fast-growing numbers of IoT devices.
"Software-defined networking enables IT managers to maintain visibility, security and control over the next-generation wide-area networking," says Da Costa.
"SDN holds great potential for productivity increases in IT because it acts as a unifying force between disparate elements – computing, networking, virtualisation and information," says Lewis, adding that SDN can also help streamline IT expenditure. However, within the umbrella concept of SDN is software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) and, more recently, SD-Perimeter.
What is SD-WAN?
It's basically a way in which an expanding global company can use software to gradually grow its network traffic and performance. "SD-WAN addresses the ‘places’, the branch networks piece of the puzzle," Da Costa says, explaining that it's about leveraging traditional infrastructure technology and making an intranet cheaper, faster and easier to configure.
SD-WAN is going to be big: Cisco has just purchased US-based SD-WAN software provider Viptela, and analysts at IDC think the SD-WAN market will be worth $6 billion (around £4.5 billion, AU$8 billion) by 2020.
“While companies use different wide area networks (WANs) – from MPLS and broadband to 4G and public Wi-Fi – to expand and grow, all present challenges like poor branch application performance, connectivity issues and rising network maintenance costs,” says Marc Sollars, CTO of specialist integrator Teneo. "SD-WAN products leverage companies’ existing network investments and cloud applications, improve local application performance visibility, and boost branches’ agility – from the centre."
What is SD-Perimeter?
SD-Perimeter as a concept originates from the Cloud Security Alliance. "SD-Perimeter deals with people and things, and is effectively SDN for the internet," says Da Costa. SD-Perimeter is essentially for companies adopting IoT projects and using public cloud services. "It extends the same level of visibility, security and control to the network that’s built over the internet, and the traffic that travels on it," he adds.
What is software-defined telephony?
Telephony now sits in the cloud. VoIP is not new, but what it has done to business models is. “Cloud telephony is just another software application running on the network,” says Rami Houbby, MD at cloud telephony provider NFON UK. Its capacity is almost limitless and extensions or home offices can be added or removed as required – it’s just software, after all.
“There are huge operational efficiencies – updates can be applied across the whole customer base, whereas an on-premise solution update required on-site updates, which mean delays and increased costs,” explains Houbby.
What are software-defined data centres?
SDDCs are all about virtualising infrastructure and hyper-scaling, largely by using software to automate all functions. “An SDDC is where all infrastructure is virtualised and automated by intelligent software," says Michael Allen, VP EMEA at Dynatrace, explaining that they're constantly self-optimising, so always at optimum performance, easier to deploy, and offer rapid scalability.
Data centre components can be managed and maintained via software, rather than manually, and that is a turning point for IT. “It represents the moment when networking infrastructure and IT infrastructure completely merge into one platform,” says Lewis.
However, SDDCs are tricky for IT staff to assess. “As a result, companies with SDDCs are increasingly turning to AI and advanced machine learning to detect and remediate issues before they affect end-users,” notes Allen.
What is software-defined storage?
This one has been overused by incessant marketing, but it's a simple concept; using programming to eliminate the constraints of physical hardware. "We are seeing an increasing number of IT managers move away from traditional infrastructures that consist of lots of different pieces of hardware, and opt for software-defined storage and hyper-converged solutions," says Albie Attias, managing director of hardware supplier King of Servers. "It means running a storage array on a single unit of commodity storage hardware." Just 9% of UK businesses currently use software-defined storage, according to a recent survey by SUSE.
What is software-defined radio?
Who needs modulators, amplifiers and detectors when you've got software? Software-defined radio (SDR) replaces and automates all that hardware with computing power and data processing, and can consequently change frequency, bandwidth or radio standard in an instant, allowing a much more dynamic use of the radio spectrum. One type is Digital-RF, which processes GHz radio signals in digital circuits.
"The Moore’s Law-driven cost advantage of digital circuits will mean that Digital-RF radio will eventually displace analogue radio from many applications," says Bryan Donoghue, Digital Systems Group Leader, Cambridge Consultants, which created a Digital-RF radio system called Pizzicato. "These flexible radios will allow engineers to be far more creative, perhaps allowing cellular and other radio standards to evolve at rapid pace."
However, radio engineers won’t be out of business just yet; analogue circuits are still used to amplify and to filter out some radio signals.
The end of hardware… or a hybrid future?
The budgets, long lead-times, complex installations and messy maintenance contracts – all of these were intrinsic to IT. However, there's been a significant shift away from pre-programmed hardware and software vendors in the last decade or so. So is hardware dead?
“What's dead are the long procurement cycles needed to access hardware resources you need," says Patrick Malatack, VP Product at Twilio, whose API is powering communications for Airbnb, WhatsApp and TransferWise. Businesses are seeing competition from tech giants like Amazon and Google, but also from nimble startups who are disrupting their category because they can ship better services faster. "Every established enterprise is feeling the pressure to compete in this new era of software," he says.
“Although software is on the rise, hardware is far from dead," says Attias, who thinks that hardware's physical form will merely change, adding: "In 10 to 15 years I expect robots, drones and smart devices to become a regular feature of the modern workplace."
Others agree, but for different reasons. "There is a way to go until hardware is phased out completely," says John English, Senior Product Manager at Netscout, who gives the example of the telecoms industry's effort to create virtualised environments. "Functions cannot be simply transferred from hardware to the cloud – they need to be rewritten to be cloud-native and micro service and container-based, and this is going to take time – a lot more time than people realise."
The foreseeable future, then, is one of hybrid networks where software and hardware work in sync.
Who are software-defined people?
So forget the machines; in this new era the IT industry needs a ‘software people’ mind-set. "The ability to adapt and thrive in the digital environment decides which companies will succeed and which will face extinction," says Malatack, who thinks that software people view the world through the lens of software, and share the belief that any problem can be solved with it.
“To meet increasing customer demand, businesses need to move away from the era of high-stakes IT with costly professional services and once-in-a-decade purchasing decisions – the era of cloud APIs puts the roadmap back in control of enterprises, enabling them to ship updates quickly and innovate often,” he says, adding: “With software, it is no longer a case of build or buy, but build or die.”