SDN does not spell doom and gloom for traditional networking vendors – that is just a lot of hype drummed up by some who have a different story to tell and who tend to come from datacenter centric mindsets.  Too often when something new and game changing comes along, folks are all too willing to jump all over incumbents and start predicting their demise. Time for a reality check. The demise of the mainframes has long been heralded, but yet IBM has a run rate for the z business unit bouncing around the billion-dollar range. I would hardly call that chump change. Actually, what will eventually kill the mainframe is the lack of trained staff to maintain and keep it running. Such was the case for the Illinois Department of Corrections who were forced to replace their mainframe with a cloud-based solution, because there was no one left to run the mainframe.  So before you throw out the baby with the bathwater and proclaim the demise of the networking business, stop and take a breath. This is about IP (as in Intellectual Property, not Internet Protocol) and vendors are going to protect their IP, because they are in business to make a profit. Cisco is a $46 billion company.  They are not going anywhere and they are not going to roll over and play dead. Nor are they going to start giving away their networking equipment. However, that does not mean these companies do not have to change with the times and they are, but companies like Cisco have a huge installed base, so unlike teeny tiny little startups they cannot turn on a dime. Change will take time and they are making those changes, but the answer for network virtualization is not going to be OpenFlow or VXLAN for networking vendors.  Nor should it be. Frankly they don’t need it. OpenFlow is a solution for non-networking equipment to gain access and manipulate the network layer.  The primary proponents of OpenFlow are big iron IT companies like IBM, HP, and NEC whose products drive the datacenter. VMware is the primary driver behind VXLAN and, just like their OpenFlow counterparts, still require the original underlying network infrastructure to run.

Who said that network virtualization has to follow the lead of datacenter dictates?

The first step to true network virtualization is not about workarounds, APIs, and overlays, but the decoupling of the operating system from the hardware platform. In mid February, Juniper Networks invited me to attend an analyst day and discuss their recently announced efforts around SDN. Juniper is taking this to heart. One proof point is that they hired Bob Muglia from Microsoft and he is a software guy. Bob is determined to shift Juniper from a hardware-oriented company to one focused on software and services. Bob Muglia is a 23-year veteran of Microsoft where he ran Microsoft’s $19 billion a year Server and Tools Business. Muglia is created for successfully growing sales as well as improving operating margins, so he has the software and business creds, but the challenge lies in prioritizing software within a networking company.  This is no easy task for any networking company. Juniper brought in a heavy hitter to coalesce and drive Juniper towards a more software-oriented architecture. Juniper’s recently announced revamping of its licensing strategy is an important first step in that direction which I already discussed in a previous blog.  My take away from the Juniper meeting was that Bob has a vision and he has no intention of minimizing the role of the networking component, but rather has his eye on adjacent touch points like load balancing. Once you start talking software, watch out, because now networking guys can climb up that same OSI stack that everyone else is clamoring to reach down into by building that functionality into their core operating system. Remember NetManage? They sold a TCP/IP stack until the TCP/IP stack became a part of the Windows operating system.  Network equipment vendors have operating systems that can be extended.

Cisco is taking a slightly different approach from Juniper, and some will argue that they are further ahead. The problem is that Cisco’s efforts appear a bit more scattered and disjointed, so it is hard to get a clear picture of what the final product will look like. However, Cisco is working towards building greater programmability through APIs, controllers, and overlays, but of their own making. Cisco Open Network Environment (called Cisco ONE) includes the One Platform Kit (onePK), which provides a set of APIs for developers that work across Cisco’s routing and switching operating systems. Other efforts include a controller that is rumored to be in the works under the spin-in company Inseime. Cisco’s recent acquisition of vCider will provide the basis for the overlay component. I would suspect there are other competing efforts within Cisco that will eventually solidify as the most promising solutions win favor. I also fully expect Cisco Prime, the management platform, to play a bigger role in this strategy moving forward. While the Cisco approach does need time to firm up and coalesce, it is very much well underway. Cisco has both a vast installed base as well as a legion of CCIEs to draw upon to drive their virtualization efforts forward and it would be a mistake to think that they cannot change the game.

Also, in case you doubt the ability of networking vendors to leverage their position into new markets or adjacent markets take a look at the recent Arista Networks announcement around their new tap aggregation solution called DANZ (Data ANalyZer). This clearly takes aim at Gigamon, NetScout and Big Switch, all who play in the network monitoring switching space. This is a small adjacent market and not one we would expect Cisco to have an interest in, but it underscores the ability of networking vendors to go after new markets. If the game is to commoditize the core routing and switching functionality, then you can be sure there are other areas in which these companies can find purchase.

SDN is a catalyst for networking vendors to find ways to make their environments more extensible, and to me that means having a predatory eye towards adjacent markets and even moving up the stack. Just like with server virtualization, network virtualization does not mean the underlying physical infrastructure simply vanishes. The physical networking gear is not going away, but rather it is evolving. Yes, SDN and OpenFlow might have forced the change sooner rather than later, but there is a lot of engineering talent at all these companies and they will rise to the challenge. There is no reason for them to play by rules set out by other vendors. The network touches everything and if networking vendors are going to retool their internal designs, then you can be very certain they will do so to ensure greater functionality, and that includes stepping into and over adjacent markets to remain relevant, protect their position in the market and at the same time being responsive to customers changing needs. No small feat, but these are not small companies to be trifled with. Stay tuned, because I think it is only going to get more interesting.

Enhanced by Zemanta