The state of the software-defined data center: Software in the spotlight

"Traditional data center thinking has ended." So say the authors of the Forrester report "The Software-Defined Data Center Comes of Age." It notes that improved automation tools, container abstractions, software-defined networks, and composable infrastructure have yielded the "unprecedented abstraction" that makes the software-defined data center (SDDC) possible. This in turn has pushed software out of a supporting role in enterprise IT and into the spotlight.

Chris Gardner, a Forrester senior analyst and co-author of the report, said the shift was inevitable. 

"As software has eaten the world, infrastructure as code became part of the discussion."
Chris Gardner

But, he said, people aren't satisfied just focusing on optimizing the upper layers, such as containers—nor should they be. "For best results, the entire stack must be software-defined, from containers to PaaS to serverless, all the way down to the bare metal," Gardner explained.

But are companies taking advantage of SDDC, and, if so, how are they faring? TechBeacon spoke to several experts in the field to find out whether SDDC has truly come of age.

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Explaining the software-defined data center

One problem is that software-defined data center has no widely agreed-upon meaning. For the most part, it remains a vague marketing term that only hints at the concepts behind it, so you can be forgiven if your understanding is hazy.

SearchConvergedInfrastructure.com has one of the clearest definitions for SDDC, calling it "a data storage facility in which all infrastructure elements—networking, storage, CPU, and security—are virtualized and delivered as a service. Deployment, operation, provisioning, and configuration are abstracted from hardware."

But though the name may be new, the idea itself is not. SDCC follows the general trend in IT infrastructures where both users and providers increasingly want to adopt IT-as-a-service (ITaaS) models.

"To be honest, I don't use the term SDDC," said Sean Tario, vice president of the cloud elements division at MicroCorp. "In my world, talking to enterprise IT end users and service providers, this is simply a new term to describe an infrastructure-as-a-service or a standard hosting environment." Cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, and VMware now all have "SDDC" solutions to this extent, he said.

Indeed, SDDC isn't being implemented solely in giant data centers and specific industries. While it's ideally suited to businesses where infrastructure flexibility is a competitive advantage, such as telecommunications, SDDC is being adopted in finance, manufacturing, healthcare, and other industries as well.

Even small and midsized businesses—some with fewer than 100 employees—are embracing software-defined infrastructures. It’s making inroads into the broader market, said BlueCat CTO Andrew Wertkin.

"Early adopters of the SDDC—cloud providers—already worked out the efficiencies, meaning this is an opportune time for smaller organizations to model their vision on a now-working system. Mainstream customers have the option of adopting an SDDC now through public cloud providers, or, if worth it, setting up their own hybrid or standalone infrastructure."
Andrew Wertkin

Pluses and pitfalls

IT pros agree there's a wealth of benefits to implementing an SDDC, most of which are the same selling points that apply to all ITaaS infrastructures: lower costs, greater flexibility, and more capacity for automation. Most importantly, developers can design apps and services based on what's best for the business without being handcuffed to the limitations of the hardware.

"Compared to traditional data centers, SDDC is more agile, efficient, and enables faster time-to-market for applications and services. Operations teams also get to choose vendor-agnostic hardware by adopting this approach."
—Wertkin

Seen in this light, the move from a hardware-based to a software-based data center seems like a no-brainer. But building an SDDC is one thing; running one is a whole other ballgame. It poses several potential pitfalls, from catastrophic misconfiguration to challenges handling legacy platforms. SDDC also presents a sobering reality for administrators: The greater the level of abstraction, the tougher SDDC is to manage. 

Skillset challenges

The biggest hurdles, however, may have more to do with a business' human, rather than network, resources. "Adopting an SDDC isn’t quick or simple and requires a certain amount of skills to start up, which may not inherently exist within an organization's original team," Wertkin explained. A common pitfall that organizations implementing SDDCs face, he said, is the challenge of adopting the new skills that SDDC requires.

That skill set is large and varied, encompassing everything from traditional IT management to expertise spanning virtualization, networking, SAN/iSCSI, and DevOps.

"In the SDDC world, everyone is a developer. So expertise in not just scripting, but also coding to APIs, is essential. Understanding continuous delivery release automation tools and configuration management is a bare minimum."
—Gardner

The challenge of filling such a tall order is what often inhibits businesses from taking the leap to an SDDC—and often sinks their efforts when they do.

If you want to implement an SDDC independently and on-premises, "take an honest pulse on whether your team can handle it," Wertkin suggested. "I've seen teams decline implementation support from vendors because they had 'enough people on their team' to do it themselves, and then they spend years and millions of dollars before they admit they need help."

Other roadblocks

A lack of skills isn't the only obstacle to implementation. Moving to an SDDC requires a corresponding shift in mindset to ensure success—one that many organizations struggle to make.

"Typically, problems in implementation revolve around not getting the right people in the room," Forrester's Gardner explained. "Software-defined storage, for example, is not meant to replace traditional storage; it's meant to replace and augment it. That means architecture, application development, and security should be part of the conversation in order to optimize deployments to the stack."

Though adopting an SDDC can test the mettle of even the most forward-thinking shops, IT pros don't need to feel intimidated. Bob Venero, CEO of IT solutions provider Future Tech Enterprise, offers a recipe for success. "When it comes to managing SDDCs, I think that the need to be adaptable is immensely important," he said.

"Teams that are open to new technologies and can take the time to learn how to leverage and manage them, or have the right partners to help them do that, will be the most successful."
Bob Venero

Venero added: "Those teams and businesses that can be flexible can find some potentially great opportunities for SDDC, enabling a connection to the public cloud, keeping some workloads local, or moving workloads between SDDCs. It's a positive for disaster recovery, backups, burst compute needs, and other data center issues of the past."

The future of the SDDC

Though organizations will have to weigh the benefits of SDDC and its steep learning curve for IT staff against business goals to determine whether the move is right for them, the trend itself shows no sign of slowing. A few years ago, Gartner predicted that the SDDC would be a critical enterprise tool by 2020, and that sentiment was shared by nearly everyone TechBeacon spoke with.

"SDDC is here to stay," Venero said. Over the next few years, it will become mainstream in most data centers, and data will live in both local and cloud environments as needed. "That will result in people spending less time on the data center and more time on security and managing the WAN," he predicted.

MicroCorp's Tario agreed, noting that SDDC is just the latest development in a larger IT transformation that has the potential to make every business a winner.

As more companies begin to realize they should focus their resources on core competencies that make them money, most applications and workloads will sit within some form of hosted environment eventually, he said.

"IT is a utility, and it will continue to be delivered as such in simpler formats over time, making it even easier than it already is today to never have to own hardware."
Sean Tario