Why SDN Does Not Commoditize Networking

Arthur Cole

Does software-defined networking (SDN) lend itself to a fully open, federated networking environment, or will there still be room for specialized hardware? The call for commodity infrastructure may be growing, but top networking vendors like Cisco Systems say they can still add a lot of value to SDN through proprietary hardware. The company’s Omar Sultan, senior manager of market management, explains to IT Business Edge’s Arthur Cole how support for standards like OpenFlow and specially designed ASICs and other technologies will actually fulfill the promises of SDN more fully than a strictly commoditized approach.

Cole: There's an ongoing debate in SDN circles between open, hardware-independent platforms and integrated hardware/software approaches. How will an integrated approach along the lines of what Cisco is developing improve functionality?

Sultan: There are a few things to consider – at the end of the day, you always end up traversing the physical domain to actually move data. We believe the physical infrastructure still matters, as the strengths and weaknesses of your physical infrastructure are going to inevitably propagate up the stack – putting the steering wheel from a Ferrari onto a Pinto is not going to make it corner any better.

Second, we have $180 billion of installed base equipment deployed worldwide. We have sizable market share across SP and enterprise networking. Our customers have a lot of capabilities and sophistication wrapped up in their Cisco infrastructure and need investment protection. We don't think they should have to dumb down their investments simply to gain programmability, hence our approach is to give them programmatic tools and open APIs to expose the access and control they want without having to give anything up. Finally, there are always features/functions that optimally live in the software domain and features/functions that optimally belong in hardware. Because we take a holistic approach, we have the full flexibility to place functions where they ideally belong instead of needing to force-fit things. The combination of hardware, software, ASICs, and services is much stronger, and that is our approach as a result.

Cole: Some enterprises are expressing concerns about becoming too dependent on a single vendor without a fully open platform. What do you say to customers to alleviate those fears?

Sultan: Cisco has always been a leader in supporting both the development of and implementation of standards, which ultimately provides customers with choice and flexibility. If you look at our approach to programmable infrastructure, it follows our pattern of building a strategy that blends Cisco innovation, standards support and seeding an ecosystem. For example, we have committed support for both our onePK API and OpenFlow on our IOS, IOS-XR and NX-OS platforms. Customers are free to choose one or both protocols. Beyond these existing protocols, Cisco is active in the SDO community with other emerging SDN standards like I2RS. Our SDN controller is Cisco technology but uses industry standard open OSGI (JAVA) and REST northbound APIs and onePK and OpenFlow southbound APIs. Beyond our own commercial offerings, we have taken active roles in the development of both OpenStack and OpenDaylight open source projects. In fact, we contributed our core controller technology to OpenDaylight and will build our commercial controller on top of OpenDaylight. We believe this approach gives customers the choice and flexibility they need to feel comfortable.

Cole: With so many SDN trials in the field, Cisco has more experience with the technology than most. What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about SDN?

Sultan: We have more than 50 customers right now, and they cut across a variety of industries globally – MSDCs, banks, health care companies, Web 2.0 companies, public sector, universities, service providers, cloud providers, large enterprises and mid-size businesses. That number continues to grow. It is great to see the wide variety of things people are trying, from the mundane but invaluable to the truly new and different. Use cases are extremely diverse.

There has been lot of marketing hype, so I think there is no shortage of misperceptions. I'll give you a couple:

One, SDN and the capabilities of programmable networking do not reside strictly in the data center. Yes, we are active in this market, however the scope is much broader in our view, stretching across the WAN, LAN, enterprise, service provider, wired and wireless networks, the cloud, and so on.

Second, the misperception that SDN will commoditize networking is false. It is the opposite. The value engineering we are pouring into networking, which includes providing programmability capabilities in our ASICs, operating systems, hardware, and software makes networking even more valuable, and for businesses and service providers, it introduces new monetization and innovation opportunities. The new services a provider can offer or an IT organization can spin up from this programmability and ability to bring applications and networks closer to each other is the antithesis of commoditization. For commodity network players, it is the worst time to be in business – today's trends do not help them one bit. When applied across the entire networking spectrum as mentioned above, the value becomes considerably greater than just within a data center environment exclusively.

Overall, customers are starting to get a more grounded perspective. They are starting to understand that SDN is not so much a magical pill as a powerful toolbox, and the focus is shifting to what kinds of tools and applications they can build or buy. As folks start to get their hands dirty and get a better feel for the skills, time and resources required, they are also starting to move from ‘can we?’ to ‘should we?’  The answer to that will really depend on a given customer’s skills, motivations and priorities, but I think they are in a better position to make more realistic and informed decisions.

While vendors are relegated to marketing, we are shipping and going to market with a variety of customers around the world, and this installed base is only growing.

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