White Paper

What Is SDx, and How Can It Improve IT Operations?

Software-defined solutions can change how organizations make use of technology.
by: Mark Yorko |

Ever since server virtualization became commonplace, allowing data center administrators to use software tools to partition physical servers into multiple isolated environments, software has increasingly become an integral part of every aspect of most IT environments. 

Storage. Networking. Compute. All of it now comes in software-defined flavors, and the “SD” prefix is everywhere: There’s SDN (software-defined networking) and SD-WAN (software-defined wide area networking); there’s SD-Access and SD-Security; it goes all the way up to the SDE (software-defined environment) and SDDC (software-defined data center). 

At this point, it’s simpler to talk about software-defined everything (SDx) than to list every possible abbreviation. Indeed, it’s easy to get lost in the alphabet soup of potential solutions. But what does SDx really mean, and what are some of the most compelling benefits for organizations and IT administrators? 

“The overarching mission of SDx is to break down the discrete IT silos (compute, storage and networking) by using software to bridge the technological and organizational gaps,” DevOps.com states. “By giving software systems a starring role in managing different kinds of hardware, the premise is that productivity will increase through more robust network access from both portable and traditional devices.” SDx represents “truly a disruptive technology shift” that can change the utilization of IT resources such as compute, networks and storage. 

$4.7 billion

The projected size of the worldwide software-defined and virtualized network functions infrastructure market in 2023

Source: IDC, “Worldwide Software-Defined and Virtualized Network Functions (Compute and Storage) Infrastructure Forecast, 2019–2023,” December 2019

Transforming IT from an Obstacle to a Business Enabler

This evolution also has the ability to alter the perception of IT in general. As software-defined processes accelerate the implementation of network and data center resources, applications can be deployed in a matter of minutes. In this scenario, the IT department is seen as an enabler of new capabilities and business opportunities rather than a hindrance to them. 

While these descriptions give a sense of the potential scope of SDx solutions, it is perhaps more useful for IT professionals to focus on what SDx tools do, what some of their chief benefits are and how organizations are using them to achieve business value. 

In short, software-defined technologies abstract the control plane of infrastructure solutions from underlying hardware, allowing greater, more efficient control over IT resources. (Going back to server virtualization, it’s easy to see how this works: Using software, virtualization tools make more efficient use of a server’s physical hardware, allowing data center administrators to run many more virtual machines with a much smaller footprint than would otherwise be possible.) By implementing software-defined technologies for their IT infrastructure, organizations can centralize governance of their IT resources. 

The value of SDx for businesses comes in three main areas: 

IT and business agility: By emphasizing software over hardware, SDx solutions create a more agile IT infrastructure, helping businesses to respond more quickly and effectively to market opportunities and pressure from competitors. This is especially important for established enterprises that are facing competition from nimble startups, which typically lack the management burdens that often accompany legacy IT infrastructure. Many organizations with legacy infrastructure are finding they must implement SDx solutions to keep up with the efficiency and agility of newer competitors.

Cost management: SDx enables IT teams to look at the per-unit cost of IT resources and manage them more effectively at a more granular level. “Software-defined allows for full utilization of resources, more automation and the ability to purchase lower-cost hardware,” notes David Coyle, practice vice president at Gartner. 

Risk management: Adopting SDx solutions can insulate organizations from both security vulnerabilities and the operational risks that come with inefficient legacy infrastructure, such as unplanned downtime and decreased performance. Many organizations unwittingly put themselves at heightened risk of data breaches and performance problems through inconsistent configurations. SDx automates configuration, enabling consistency across the IT environment and thereby reducing security vulnerabilities and other issues. 

Valuable Use Cases for SDx Environments

Drivers of SDx will vary by organization, but a few use cases pop up routinely. One of these is automated resource provisioning; when developers need virtual machines for a project, software-defined infrastructure can automatically provision those resources, leading to increased operational efficiency and improved budget predictability. 

Data center optimization is another important driver for organizations considering SDx solutions. Through capabilities such as SDN and network function virtualization, SDx can improve application performance by orchestrating workloads across one or more private or public clouds. 

Finally, the opportunity to simplify the storage environment is a powerful motivator that leads many organizations to take their first steps into a more software-defined IT environment. Software-defined storage abstracts logical storage services and capabilities from the underlying physical storage systems, enabling high-level management — including automation and orchestration — of external storage arrays that act as a single pool of resources. SDS also powers HCI, pooling disk drives and solid-state storage drives from multiple servers and making these resources available across an entire cluster.

To learn more about software-defined solutions and how to build an SDx environment, read the CDW white paper “Achieving Software-Defined Everything.”