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The Future of SDN in the Federal Government

TechSource Editor

September 8, 2014  |  Cloud  •  Networking  •  Software-defined Networking

Will software defined networking (SDN) be the future for federal agencies? That is what a group of Federal IT execs discussed at the Federal Forum in Washington D.C. last month. The panel included Husnain Bajwa, Distinguished Engineer, Aruba Networks; Ron Bewtra, CTO, NOAA; Dr. Alissa Johnson and Bob Kimball, CTO, Ciena Government Solutions.

SDN is to the network what the microchip was to electronics and virtualization was to the server—in other words, it is set to revolutionize the network, according to some experts. SDN offers improved velocity, agility and cost-savings and will be a critical component to agencies delivering better services and mission support as performance demands grow rapidly in today’s IT environment. Yet, panelists all agreed that federal adoption of the technology has been slow.

But there is some hope. Ron Bewtra, CTO of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently pushing out beta projects with SDN, including a DC Metro area network and a private/public partnership exploring open data initiatives. With data capture and analysis being a large part of NOAA’s mission, SDN holds promise in terms of being able to extract data from their diverse network and being able to analyze it.

Another panelists, Alissa Johnson, Deputy IO, Executive Office of the President, similarly is looking into the future of SDN. According to Johnson, while the White House is not currently deploying SDN, they are looking at data center APIs and migrating to the cloud, which will facilitate future SDN deployment.

Given the benefits of SND, why has adoption been so slow?

Security is a prime concern. Johnson said, “It just takes one thing” to set agencies on edge when it comes to security, and the perceived security risks of SDN remain a challenge.

Boundary issues were another challenge cited by Bewtra and Johnson, as inter-agency connections involve disparate budgets and documents with varying levels of classification. Johnson also cited perimeter/boundary issues as a pain point in selling both cloud and SDN, as worries about keeping White House data secure when sharing with other agencies are involved.

But despite these challenges, the future of SDN is not far off. Both the White House and NOAA are actively working towards an environment when SDN will be the norm in the federal government. Johnson shared that the White House is working on addressing IT employees’ fears that their skills will be outmoded and they’ll soon be out of a job by retooling and retraining to enable skillsets that keep pace with new technologies like SDN. New positions like Chief Data Officer and Chief Digital Officer have been added, demonstrating the agency’s dedication to keeping pace with new technologies.

Bewtra cautioned that a “rank and file” mentality among system administrators won’t cut it; those who aren’t willing to learn to program will be in jeopardy in the evolving landscape of federal IT. He added that federal IT employees should be afraid of change but not let it intimidate them—there is time to adopt new skills and keep pace with technology.

SDN offers new opportunities in the federal IT space, as the need for data scientists and developers increase, but those with understanding of traditional networks are still relevant. There is a huge opportunity for those with traditional network expertise to learn these new skills and transition into next-generation federal IT roles. Similarly, SDN holds promise in many areas, from managing users across multiple devices and enabling open source technologies in the federal space to permitting shared services and realizing significant cost savings for federal agencies.

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