Software-defined networks (SDNs) change networks at an extremely basic level. This is well understood. What logically follows, and what seems to be coming into focus now, is that this dislocation means that the business sector built upon the old regime must by definition change just as radically. Winners can become losers; losers (or new players) can become winners.
This is as big a deal as it sounds and, consequently, the established vendors and networking firms will try to influence the all-important details of standards setting, buying startups they feel can help them stay on top and in other ways trying to figure out ways to stay ahead of competitors.
The bottom line is that change is scary, particularly to those who have nowhere to go but down. In the networking game, nobody fits the definition of a company on top that is striving to find a way to stay there more than Cisco. At Cisco Live in San Francisco last week, CEO John Chambers essentially acknowledged that the world as Cisco knows it is changing. Computerworld quotes him in his keynote as saying that there will be “a brutal, brutal consolidation of the IT industry.”
His message was predictable: Cisco won’t go quietly into that good IT night:
The company is directly taking on SDN (software-defined networking) in the form of so-called "white box" networking hardware with an overlay of software such as the OpenFlow open-source protocol or VMware's NSX. Cisco will win with a combination of its ACI (Application Centric Infrastructure) platform with hardware built from a combination of third-party and Cisco-developed silicon, he said. Traditional, standalone networking equipment will be sidelined, he said.
Cisco will remain a player, in many respects the main player, in networking. If SDN (and its cousin, network functions virtualization) has its intended impact, however, that position will be diluted. That is inevitable because the new approach is intended to level the playing field. The extent of the dilution of its position, however, is in some ways dependent upon how Cisco plays its cards (and opens its wallet).
That is a good context in which to think about the food fight that has broken out between the company and VMware. CRN provides some of the technical background and describes the back and forth between VMware and Cisco. VMware, one of the first of the virtualization vendors, is a pioneer of the precursors to the new approach to networks and networking. It is not surprising that the two companies are confronting each other.
Julie Bort at Business Insider eschews the high technology to look at where Cisco is right now. In echoes of Microsoft’s initial underestimation of the Internet, she writes that Cisco reacted slowly to SDN and now is struggling to catch up. An important factor in its favor is that the transition to SDNs is a long one and gives Cisco time to work.
Cisco and VMware now are going after each other in a very direct way. That isn’t surprising, considering how much things will change during the next few years and, consequently, how much each company has on the table.