10 Networking Predictions For 2013

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The networking industry is undergoing a seismic shift thanks to virtualized networking platforms and the overall push toward software-defined networking and the programmable, application-centric data center. That SDN shift was the biggest networking story of 2012, and is likely to remain so in 2013, which is why so many of the following predictions address what implications that shift will have.

Here's a look at what CRN expects to dominate networking-industry discussion over the next 12 months.

SDN Focus Shifts To Use Cases

Now that software-defined networking (SDN) has taken hold as the thing industry watchers can't stop talking about, the hype cycle will begin to give way to practical, less-frenzied discussion. Customers have heard enough about the trend by now that they'll be ready to see SDN in action as private betas, proof-of-concepts and demonstrations become more common. SDN startups will have to prove their worth as more than just marketing and slideware, while major networking vendors like Cisco, HP and Juniper -- and the partners who support them -- will face customers more informed and more skeptical about the supposed benefits. Is it too early to call 2013 the year of practical SDN?

"In 2013, early adopter success will pave the way for more mainstream adoption by proving the business case for network virtualization and SDN," wrote startup Midokura in a note to CRN. "These successes will drive product innovation in the space, both from start-ups and large networking vendors."

More SDN Startup M&A At High Valuations

Nicira was the big name -- and big purse -- among SDN companies that were acquired in 2012, but companies like Vyatta, Xsigo and Contrail Systems were also taken off the table by established networking and infrastructure vendors.

Given how crowded the SDN startup field has become -- and how many of them now have generally available products or have officially emerged from stealth mode in the last few months -- it's logical to think further consolidation is imminent. Bank on at least one of the better-known SDN startup names -- Big Switch, Plexxi, Adara, Embrane, etc. -- to find a big-name buyer with a fat wallet. HP? Oracle? Dell? Google? IBM? Cisco? All plausible.

Cisco Goes Its Own Way With SDN

Industry watchers are curious about Cisco's SDN plans, in particular, because as a trend, SDN theoretically poses the greatest risk to Cisco's tried-and-true -- and expensive -- network plumbing. Cisco's indicated, however, that it plans to lead the shift toward software-defined data centers and the programmable network, and it's slowly revealed elements of what might be called its SDN strategy: investing in a mysterious startup called Insiemi, doubling down on its virtual switching technologies and coming out with a development platform called Cisco Open Network Environment, which offers a set of APIs for use on a few different Cisco operating systems.

Whether these tools are embraced by the Cisco faithful is one thing, but what's clear is that Cisco plans to not just participate but actually define the SDN shift on its own terms.

VARs With Software Plus Networking Expertise Flourish

With customers still trying to wrap their heads around SDN, they'll be relying on solution providers to navigate them through the SDN hype cycle in much the same way they had two years ago with cloud computing.

And it isn't just about SDN technologies; networking VARs with a firm grasp on software -- custom development to integration -- are expected to benefit. UC vendors such as Microsoft and Digium that have sizable channel software enablement programs are seeing partners embrace those programs in record numbers. The bottom line? The programmable, application-centric network is here to stay.

"Partners have a great opportunity to leverage open APIs to customize a UC&C system for individual customer needs and grow their managed services business," wrote Digium representatives in an email to CRN. "Overall spending may be down, but IT spending is up. Integrating custom solutions and mobile solutions is how companies can maintain a competitive edge."

802.11ac: Lots Of Hype, Not Much Action (Yet)

Well, here's an easy one: 802.11ac, expected to ratify in 2013, will begin to see a lot more market attention as the next step past 802.11n technologies. But a blizzard of hype awaits wireless customers, a lot of it centered on the incredibly fast performance and throughput promised by 11ac and why vendors feel customers should make their upgrade plans now. The truth is that a lot the performance upgrades won't be seen until so-called second wave 11ac products drive speeds upwards of several Gbps behind big bandwidth improvements.

In other words, businesses that have only recently upgraded to 11n won't be in a rush to embrace 11ac, putting the significant uptake of 11ac product availability and product sales likely into 2014. That's not to say wireless isn't healthy -- quite the opposite. Infonetics Research recently pegged wireless LAN sales as crossing the $1 billion-per-quarter mark for the first time.

Major M&A In Wireless and Hosted UC

"More consolidation": how original a prediction, right? Well, with M&A activity expected throughout the networking industry this year, it's likely major acquisitions will happen in two segments in particular. One is Wi-Fi, which, thanks to the Cisco's Maraki pickup and Ruckus' IPO, has already seen some major moves in recent months. But the fact of the matter is that wireless remains a market bifurcated by bigger fish like Cisco, Motorola and Aruba, as well as smaller, hotshot upstarts like Ruckus, Aerohive and Xirrus. Here's thinking one of the bigger networking and infrastructure vendors without a strong wireless practice snaps up one of those smaller fries. Here's thinking that likely acquirer is the same company over on Slide 11.

Another area to watch for consolidation is hosted VoIP/UC. ShoreTel made a game-changing acquisition of M5 Networks early on in 2012, and here's thinking another UC vendor with an itch to buy (versus build) a cloud-based networking practice ponies up for an 8x8 or a RingCentral. Stranger things have happened.

Big Data's Network Conversation

Networking and data center-centric vendors -- particularly application delivery networking and WAN performance companies like F5 Networks and Riverbed Technology -- will become more appealing as big data places unprecedented demands on network performance. The big data conversation is about to collide with the network optimization conversation in, well, a big way.

"Big data is driving an analytics movement in the network," said Riverbed representatives in an email to CRN. "More organizations will look for ways to consolidate a well as look to invest in federation solutions, especially those that are cloud-based, to abstract, gather, transform and combine internal and external data from different physical locations and storage types into a consistent format."

The Cisco-EMC/VMware Rift Widens

Try as they might to deny it, Cisco and EMC -- and EMC-majority-owned VMware -- are increasingly at odds. Sure, they're all strategic partners and have an important joint venture with a questionable future to worry about, but so many of the moves each company made in 2012 show a Cisco-EMC partnership not nearly as tight and mutually beneficial as it used to be.

Cisco, for its part, is OK with having partners it also competes with. But if Cisco pulls the trigger on a long-speculated acquisition of either NetApp or Citrix -- purely idle chatter here, folks, relax -- there would be no more room for buddy love between the network, storage and virtualization kings.

More Action In The Video Channel

With video no longer a standalone "pro A/V"-type discipline so much as part-and-parcel of unified communications deployments, solution providers in the UC market have found it much easier to buy, versus build, video practices. Exeter, R.I.-based Carousel Industries and Parsippany, N.J.-based Strategic Products and Services are just two of the SP500 solution providers that acquired well-known videoconferencing integrators in the past 18 months, and that's a trend -- bigger UC and networking-focused VARs buying their way into pro A/V expertise -- most everyone watching the video space expects to not only continue, but accelerate. Meanwhile, major video integrators and MSPs like AVI-SPL, IVCi and Yorktel are evolving their models to make services a much higher percentage of revenue, understanding that it's there -- not in basic endpoint or infrastructure resale -- where the video money's going to be made. Expect to see more startups like Vidyo, Blue Jeans Network and Vidtel make channel converts touting services opportunities -- and the Ciscos and Polycoms to fight harder to keep those opportunities from slipping away.

Dell's Continued Networking Ascent

Incumbent networking titans like Cisco may not think so, but Dell is suddenly a converged infrastructure contender with big-time networking aspirations. It bought Force10 and is turning that into a key data networking asset. It bought SonicWall and is turning that into a key network security asset. It bought Gale Technologies and is turning that into a key infrastructure automation asset. Yep, it bought a lot of companies in the past few years. It also hired major names -- ex-HP-er Marius Haas and ex-Alcatel-Lucent enterprise chief Tom Burns, for example -- with networking industry pedigree to drive its enterprise ambitions.

Dell is a networking company now, and one that no longer "needs" Brocade and Juniper as OEM partners. Will its third major networking OEM partner, Aruba, also get boxed out?