Juniper’s SDN strategy is well thought out and is not dissimilar to Cisco’s approach in that they are looking to make their network equipment less rigid and more flexible and adaptable. Oh and I do look forward to hearing more about the plans for “centralizing the appropriate aspects of the management, services and control software to simplify network design and lower operating costs.” Because honestly the whole management side of the SDN story has been sorely neglected. The take away from the announcement is not so much what Juniper is planning to do in SDN, but rather what it is doing around a new licensing model called the Juniper Software Advantage. Juniper has long harped on the single operating system model and how its customers do not have the same issues that Cisco customers run into with a bazillion versions of the operating system that are all different (and trying to keep everything current and on the right rev is, well, something akin to a nightmare).  But like Cisco, Juniper’s OS is wedded to its hardware platform, because well that is just how things have always been done, until now.

With this announcement Juniper is take the first step in decoupling the operating system from the hardware platform, which is kind of network virtualization step one. Think of this as the client/server movement for networking equipment. Step one – decouple the operating system from the hardware platform, but that is not so easy or straightforward. Typically the operating system is both embedded and wedded to the hardware device that it ships on. It is not transferable. When companies go through a network equipment refresh that means all new operating system licenses must be repurchased in addition to the equipment. Juniper is proposing a new licensing model that:

  • Decouples the operating system from the hardware permanently, implementing a “VM”-based application design.
  • Creates licenses that are not just transferrable, but that can be moved across different architectures, such as x86 or different cloud-stacks, whether they are public or private. This is a game changer.
  • Pay as you go licensing model and a move away from software keys and true-up penalties – the bane of software license administration.
  • Perpetual Lifetime licensing– I would like a dollar for every customer conversation I have had that starts, “We had no idea our maintenance license had expired.” In the new model the software license and maintenance will always be current and supported.  No more software expiring with underlying hardware – all updates, bug fixes, version upgrades are included.

Server virtualization has worked out very well and reduced the datacenter footprint and, more importantly, has allowed datacenter IT to address the rapid pace of change in today’s business environment. The natural assumption is “Well, why not use the same approach to virtualize the physical network infrastructure?” In short, it hasn’t worked out that way.  While many would be quick to place the blame squarely at the feet of the networking equipment vendors, it is just not that simple. The problem is that everyone seems to forget that server virtualization did not transpire overnight. Not too many years ago, server hardware, operating system and application platforms were welded together. It took a long time and many technology shifts – in particular, client/server along with commodity server platforms and more intelligent client devices.

The virtualization of the networking infrastructure will happen in steps. While overlay networks attempt to jump-start the movement, the reality is that overlays still rely on the underlying physical network, so it is just a work around. True virtualization of the networking layer is going to be hard and it is going to take time. Anyone who thinks it is going to be easy or any one vendor has the problem solved is going to be sorely disappointed.

And to be very clear, APIs are not a solution. It just foists the responsibility of connectivity back to the poor networking engineer who has to write and maintain the scripts that work with the flood of APIs hitting the market all in the name of SDN nirvana. Juniper is proposing a logical first step in decoupling the physical equipment from the operating system layer. For everything else, the APIs and SDN platforms (that are really middleware) are just jury-rigging to get to networking programmability and do not represent a true change to how things are done at the network layer. True SDN is about changing how we build and design our networks, but the reality is that this change will take time and lots of false starts before this becomes reality. Kudos to Juniper for taking this first major step toward true network virtualization, because I feel confident that they will still be in the game when all these fly-by-night SDN players are dust in the wind.

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