In an industry that focuses so much on emerging technologies, it's easy to lose sight of the less exotic components that make up a cloud -- routers, servers, firewalls and even hypervisors. A recent TechTarget survey shows that while service providers are continuing to invest in conventional infrastructure, many are still slow to adopt more specialized or innovative technologies like cloud orchestration or software-defined networking.
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If you're submerged in the hype surrounding software-defined networking (SDN) and the even more emergent concept of network functions virtualization (NFV), investing in conventional networking hardware might seem as outdated as going to a bank teller to deposit a check versus using ATM or now a smartphone app. It's not a perfect analogy, but just as there will always be a need for banks to employ humans to support an increasingly automated banking system, so too will there be a need for providers to purchase routers, switches and other traditional devices to provide the foundation for next-generation networking technologies.
Networking hardware will be the biggest area of investment for providers over the next year, with 52% of IT and business professionals who work for service providers saying their companies plan to increase spending in that area, according to SearchCloudProvider's 2013 purchasing intentions survey. Another 21% indicated their networking hardware budgets will remain unchanged through April 2014, while 19% weren't sure how spending might change. In terms of absolute networking basics, 59% of respondents also said their companies needed to buy more bandwidth in the next 12 months.
No matter what the buzz about startups challenging the established networking vendors, few service providers -- only 15% -- said they are willing to break ranks and change their primary networking hardware vendors. Respondents named Cisco Systems, HP and Juniper Networks as the top three vendors, respectively, they use today.
Providers evaluating emerging cloud technologies
In terms of new technologies, most providers criticized the current state of the SDN market, with 78% saying that SDN technology isn't mature enough to deploy yet and 72% indicating that traditional networking vendors are behind in terms of SDN product rollouts. Most also felt SDN is currently too complex to deploy, that it has unresolved security and management issues, and isn't ready for cloud provider networks and data centers. A majority of respondents also indicated they have no on-staff expertise to deploy and manage SDN in their networks today.
65% of survey respondents say they don't have the expertise on-staff today to deploy and manage SDN.
This is not to say that SDN is irrelevant. On the contrary, it has the potential to completely reshape service provider networks and make cloud service delivery more nimble and efficient. It is, however, still in its early days. While only 5% of respondents said they have already adopted SDN, 42% said they plan to evaluate it over the next year. Another 29% said they had no plans to adopt SDN, while 24% said they didn't know.
Similar patterns appeared in response to questions about other specialized or emerging technologies. When asked about their plans for self-service portals, orchestration software and cloud management platforms -- all of which are widely discussed in the provider market -- about 40% to 50% of respondents said they were evaluating the technologies, while about 20% said they had no plans for any of the three product families. Between 7% and 12% had already bought such products, while about 10% said they were bypassing vendors and building the technologies in-house.
Other IT spending up across the board
Most providers also plan to increase or maintain spending on servers, storage infrastructure, security products and carrier-grade server virtualization platforms over the next year.
Providers named HP, Cisco and IBM as the top three vendors they'll consider for servers. VMware won the majority vote among virtualization vendors; 58% of respondents say they're considering it for future spending. But Microsoft wasn't far behind at 42%; Citrix and Red Hat nearly tied for third.
For storage, EMC took the lead, with IBM and HP nearly tied for second; NetApp took third place.
Another heavily hyped technology, OpenStack, is also seeing limited adoption among survey respondents, with only 22% saying their companies have deployed the open-source software platform to build cloud services. When non-users were asked why they haven't adopted OpenStack, the top three reasons were that they were already using a commercial vendor's platform, they were building their own platform or they required support services from vendors. Yet respondents were also optimistic about its future. When asked to predict the top cloud platform leader in two years, OpenStack took second place -- behind VMware and ahead of Microsoft.
Personnel, profitability top challenges cloud providers face
When building out cloud services, providers face other challenges besides choosing the right vendor. Asked about their top three technical challenges, respondents said finding engineers and developers with cloud experience was the most difficult part of executing a cloud strategy. Although the market is still early enough in its development that almost everyone is playing catch-up, the divide between companies that have abundant cloud expertise and those that don't will likely become more visible as customers expect bigger things from their providers -- chiefly, support for mission-critical applications.
The second-biggest technical challenge for them is the shifting emphasis from hardware to software for cloud services delivery, which will likely be a critical area of expertise that providers will be looking for in those cloud-savvy engineers and developers. The failure of technology budgets to keep up with growing demand placed third.
On the business issues side, respondents said their biggest obstacle was making cloud services profitable. Security and compliance came in second, followed by customer education in third.