SDN Watch: Cutting Through The Hype10:29 AM EST Thu. Dec. 13, 2012
With software-defined networking (SDN) now a buzz-heavy industry trend, top executives at companies invested in the space say it's time to move beyond hype-cycle marketing and into practical use cases for SDN, starting with definition.
Dante Malagrino, co-founder and CEO of SDN startup Embrane, said it's a matter of IT organizations wanting to perform network functions with the same speed and freedom they're now used to in other areas, such as how they can quickly leverage IaaS services from Amazon. But if everyone has an SDN story -- and as of the end of 2012, almost all the major networking vendors and a host of startups do -- the important use-case elements will get lost in the marketing.
"Education is the biggest challenge right now," Malagrino said this week at the Raymond James IT Supply Chain Conference in New York. "It will get even more challenging. Everyone has a play in SDN."
"Some people have good strategies and others are really good at PowerPoint," said Doug Gourlay, vice president of marketing, service provider and federal sales at Arista Networks.
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Malagrino and Gourlay joined executives from fellow startup Big Switch Networks, as well as telecom behemoth Verizon, during a panel discussion of SDN at the conference. Simon Leopold, a Raymond James analyst who in recent notes has described SDN as still well within the "hype" phase, kicked off the panel by declaring SDN a "multiyear evolution" but also a shift in networking that CIOs, IT distributors and solution providers are trying to get a handle on.
Panelists agreed that despite a range of definitions for SDN, the concept itself means speed, flexibility and efficiency in the network using a system that separates network control and forwarding planes and leverages network virtualization techniques.
Guido Appenzeller, CEO of Big Switch, described one of the biggest disconnects as being how IT administrators can "provision a new virtual machine in a few clicks, but then have to write trouble tickets for the network that can take two weeks" to get the network up to speed. The network, Appenzeller and the others agreed, is what isn't agile.
Big Switch, which kicked off commercial sales of its SDN platform, provisioning and network monitoring tools in November, is among a handful of SDN startups getting attention from venture capitalists looking to invest in the space. Both Big Switch and Embrane have been mentioned as acquisition targets, too, especially now that major networking and infrastructure vendors such as VMware and Juniper have acquired SDN startups.
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SDN leaders say it's too limiting to develop technologies that merely address some network layers or that don't integrate with network hardware. Embrane, for example, uses its distributed software platform Heleos to provide programmability into Layer 4-7 networking functions such as load balancing, Malagrino said.
Arista's Gourlay said SDN can provide not only a cost advantage, but also a competitive advantage, especially in carrier/service provider sales.
"If my provider asks for a new [network] feature and we build that feature for them, they have it and it's only a matter of time before other competitors build it and have it," Gourlay said. But if a carrier such as Verizon can develop a new feature in a programmable network rather than buy it, it's a lot harder for competitors to duplicate it.
While most SDN-focused companies are still defining use cases for the technology, the panelists agreed that the ability to flexibly move workloads in virtualized environments while also taking out cap-ex costs associated with traditionally designed networks have to be part of the discussion.
"This can't be a solution looking for a problem," Gourlay said.
Prodip Sen, director of network architecture for Verizon Communications, said that specific to carrier-grade SDNs, the system has to be about better managing and directing network traffic while also offering better resiliency. He listed cost reduction, service flexibility and service velocity as key drivers for SDN adoption.
A common argument in SDN circles is that it will further commoditize network products such as switches and routers. But the SDN panelists agreed that the market isn't so much about building a software switch that can eclipse Cisco so much as designing the best software system that makes the overall network -- from the physical hardware infrastructure to the virtualized functions -- a lot more efficient.
"I don't buy the commoditization argument," Embrane's Malagrino said. "I think we're seeing a shift from where a switch was part of a closed system to where a switch is integrated and programmable."
"[This market] provides a limited barrier to entry and no barrier to exit," Arista's Gourlay said. "The controller vendor who wins will be able to offer both hardware and software support. Why [companies like] VMware and Oracle dominate is because they offer a broad breadth of support."
PUBLISHED DEC. 13, 2012