If you've worked in enterprise IT over the last few years, you'll undoubtedly have heard the phrase 'software defined' being bandied around. Whereas software once merely played a support role to the hardware on which it was running, cloud and virtualization technologies have now moved software into the spotlight, with hardware now playing second fiddle.
This overall trend, and the term 'software-defined' itself, evolved in the data center. Beginning with virtualized compute technology, popularized by vendors like VMware, virtualized offerings for networking and storage followed soon after, laying the groundwork for what we now refer to as the Software Defined Data Center (SDDC).
Despite the growth of this trend, many business leaders still aren't sure what impact the SDDC will have on their organization, or what it means for enterprise IT generally. The SDDC is still young, but that doesn't mean that IT leaders can ignore it.
Depending on your organization, the rise of SDDC technologies could have major implications for the way resources are provisioned and apps are deployed. But first, we have to define it. Forrester's Robert Stroud, in a joint report with Richard Fichera, defines it as such:
"An SDDC is an integrated abstraction layer that defines a complete data center by means of a layer of software that presents the resources of the data center as pools of virtual and physical resources and allows their composition into arbitrary user-defined services."
A modern SDDC deployment is defined by virtualized, software-defined resources that can be scaled up or down as required, and can be deployed as needed in a number of distinct ways. There are three key components to the SDDC:
Software defined computing
Software defined networking
Software defined storage
There's also often a fourth layer, known as the orchestration management layer. Gartner's John Morency describes it as "The intelligence that enables the operations team to do the initial configuration in terms of defining the virtual machines, the storage, the network interconnections, and if they need to, support a specific application or set of applications."
SDDC as a concept began with virtualized compute, and so most enterprises tend to start with that layer as well. Stroud goes so far as to say that software-defined computing is "extremely well adopted," but that he is seeing growth in software-defined storage and networking as well.
The birth of SDDC
As noted, the modern concept of SDDC began with virtual compute, but its history goes much further back. The early 2000s saw the early emergence of converged infrastructure (CI) offerings (sometimes called 'data-center-in-a-box'), as a means to combat the complexity brought by disparate hardware and software systems.
In their report, Stroud and Fichera identify HP's Utility Data Center (UDC) as what could be regarded as the "first commercial SDDC implementation". While the UDC lacked the scalability that has come to define modern SDDC deployments, it was an effective proof-of-concept for the value of hardware abstraction.
A few years later virtualized compute products were making a big splash in the market, led by companies like VMware and Cisco, who then began to try and reap similar benefits by virtualizing networking and storage.
Stroud said he is seeing growth in software-defined networking (SDN) and software defined storage (SDS) solutions, but notes that these are often vendor aligned and sometimes lack the flexibility of the compute products.
The value of SDDC
Having defined it, let's examine why organizations are beginning to implement the SDDC approach, and how are they benefiting from it.
According to Gartner's Morency, the initial value provided by the SDDC is threefold: more automation, more agility, and more flexibility. With less manual effort, organizations can use their employees more efficiently and greater agility helps operations respond more quickly to business requests. An additional and often-overlooked use case for SDDC is in improving data center resiliency, said Morency.
SDDC also helps to "provide the means by which the in-house enterprise IT staff can begin to configure, provision, [and] activate compute and storage resources at a level that's, maybe not the same, but much more competitive, much closer to what the large public cloud providers can offer," Morency added.
More and more, companies in a variety of industries are beginning to realize just how much more of a software or technology company than, say, a financial services company they are. With this in mind, many IT leaders are looking to SDDC and its related technologies to help them remain competitive as they continued to adopt new and expanding business models.
Because it comprises so many different technologies and layers, it's difficult to try and pinpoint data around current SDDC adoption rates. However, based on their own research and conversations, analysts have been able to identify some of the early movers in the space.
Forrester's Stroud sees utilities, telecommunications, retail, manufacturing, and finance as the industry sectors with a heavy focus on SDDC. For Gartner's Morency SDDC growth is concentrated in large financial services, healthcare organizations, utilities, and communications, and less evident in the hospitality, transportation, and construction sectors.
However, the maturity of the SDDC market is still up for debate. Morency called it "nascent," but noted that his views tends to go against the grain in the industry. In tracking client inquiry volume at Gartner for SDDC technologies, the most active segment was SDS, which had double the volume of inquires of SDN -- 450 versus 225. Meanwhile, SDDC only generated about 100 specific inquiries.
Despite its youth, the SDDC is growing. Forrester's research found that 62 percent of enterprises surveyed were either planning to implement SDDC, currently implementing SDDC, or expanding their existing SDDC implementation.
And, while there are some challenges with existing solutions, and some solutions are still vendor-specific, Stroud said that he "anticipate[s] that standards will emerge supporting easier abstraction and faster delivery."
In terms of what companies will lead the space, Stroud and Fichera's research puts Microsoft and VMware as potential top contenders, with Dell, HPE, Cisco, Lenovo, and Oracle all playing a role in the future of SDDC as well.