The era of software-defined infrastructure has arrived. Here’s what you need to know for a successful outcome.

Today we are on the cusp of a technological revolution that won’t be readily apparent to most consumers, but it will have a profound impact on enterprises. We’re talking about software-defined infrastructure.

Software-defined infrastructure – which includes software-defined networking, storage, data centers, and more – virtualizes a service so it is independent of its underlying hardware. The advantages include increased performance, greater agility, strengthened security, and lower costs.

How big of a paradigm shift is ahead of us?

Enterprise spending on software-defined infrastructure is expected to grow from $25 billion in 2016 to $83 billion by 2021, according to Markets and Markets.

Your roadmap to IT success

The transition to a software-defined future for many enterprises will involve challenges similar to those of other tech endeavors. To help you with this transition, here are three general guidelines:

1. Do your research.

One of the surest ways to successfully guide your enterprise from its current state to a future of software-defined infrastructure is to seek the advice of your peers. Talk to fellow CIOs who have already implemented software-defined services. Visit IT message boards and forums and ask questions and learn from others’ experiences. Learn what other companies in your industry have done.

2. Develop a roadmap.

As always, failing to plan ahead can be the corporate equivalent of planning to fail. You need to develop a roadmap to your software-defined future, so you can implement the types of software-defined infrastructure that best suit your enterprise’s unique situation. You will need to hire a new team of tech experts and understand how your new capabilities as a software-defined enterprise will reinvent your relationships with customers and partners.

3. It’s not always “rip and replace.”

One of the mental stumbling blocks for your staff can be the frightening prospect of completely overhauling the current infrastructure. Such a huge item on your IT to-do list can foster institutional resistance to taking the very first steps. But it’s not always rip and replace; some SD-WAN solutions, for instance, are modular and can be installed piece by piece.

Understanding software-defined infrastructure

Here’s a quick primer on the three main components of a software-defined environment in the order in which most enterprises would adopt them:

1. Software-defined wide area networks

At the top of many CIOs’ software-defined to-do lists is the software-defined WAN. An SD-WAN significantly improves an enterprise’s ability to deploy and optimize its critical business applications, cloud environments, data analytics, and mobility.

“Traditional WANs were not architected for the cloud and are also poorly suited to the security requirements associated with distributed and cloud-based applications,” says Rohit Mehra, an IDC vice president, network infrastructure. “And while hybrid WAN emerged to meet some of these next-generation connectivity challenges, SD-WAN builds on hybrid WAN to offer a more complete solution.”

Among an SD-WAN’s advantages over hybrid WAN are a centralized app-based policy controller, analytics for app and network visibility, and a secure software overlay that abstracts the underlying networks.

2. Software-defined storage

Enterprises today are creating, storing, and analyzing unprecedented amounts of data.

As a result, enterprises are embracing software-defined storage because it’s better suited for a modern data center than legacy storage infrastructure such as SAN- and NAS-based storage. With software-defined storage, storage solutions are virtualized and run on commodity hardware with all of the most important storage functionality, such as provisioning, being run in the software.

“For IT organizations undergoing digital transformation, software-defined storage provides a good match for the capabilities needed – flexible IT agility; easier, more intuitive administration driven by the characteristics of autonomous storage management; and lower capital costs due to the use of commodity and off-the-shelf hardware,” notes Eric Burgener, a research director for storage at IDC.

3. Software-defined data centers

In a software-defined data center, all of the infrastructure is virtualized and delivered as-a-service. This IT-as-a-service can lead to increased automation and improved flexibility because of the adoption of cloud services, but the software-defined data center is also the most immature, complex, and risky of these three software-defined solutions.

CIOs can’t buy a ready-made software-defined data center from a vendor, says Dave Russell, a Gartner vice president. “First, they need to understand why they need it for the business. Second, they need to deploy, orchestrate, and integrate numerous parts, probably from different vendors.” In addition, the software-defined data center will require new skills and a cultural shift in the IT organization.

Looking ahead

While the road to becoming a software-defined enterprise has its challenges, uncertainties, and risks, it is also an inevitability.

Your job is to lead your enterprise’s digital transformation. It’s a tough assignment, but you’ve done it before. And you’ll do it again with software-defined infrastructure.