Daily Archives: July 26, 2011

ONF Board Members Call OpenFlow Tune

The concept of software-defined networking (SDN) has generated considerable interest during the last several months.  Although SDNs can be realized in more than one way, the OpenFlow protocol seems to have drawn a critical mass of prospective customers (mainly cloud-service providers with vast data centers) and solicitous vendors.

If you aren’t up to speed with the basics of software-defined networking and OpenFlow, I suggest you visit the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and OpenFlow websites to familiarize yourself the underlying ideas.  Others have written some excellent articles on the technology, its perceived value, and its potential implications.

In a recent piece he wrote originally for GigaOm, Kyle Forster of Big Switch Networks offers this concise definition:

Concisely Defined

“At its most basic level, OpenFlow is a protocol for server software (a “controller”) to send instructions to OpenFlow-enabled switches, where these instructions give direct control over how those switches forward traffic through the network.

I think of OpenFlow like an x86 instruction set for the network – it’s low-level, but it’s very powerful. Continuing that analogy, if you read the x86 instruction set for the first time, you might walk away thinking it could be useful if you need to build a fancy calculator, but using it to build Linux, Apache, Microsoft Word or World of Warcraft wouldn’t exactly be obvious. Ditto for OpenFlow. It isn’t the protocol that is interesting by itself, but rather all of the layers of software that are starting to emerge on top of it, similar to the emergence of operating systems, development environments, middleware and applications on top of x86.”

Increased Network Functionality, Lower Network Operating Costs

The Open Networking Foundation’s charter summarizes its objectives and the value proposition that advocates of SDN and OpenFlow believe they can deliver:

 “The Open Networking Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a new approach to networking called Software-Defined Networking (SDN). SDN allows owners and operators of networks to control and manage their networks to best serve their users’ needs. ONF’s first priority is to develop and use the OpenFlow protocol. Through simplified hardware and network management, OpenFlow seeks to increase network functionality while lowering the cost associated with operating networks.”

That last part is the key to understanding the composition of ONF’s board of directors, which includes Deutsche Telecom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo. All of these companies are major cloud-service providers with multiple, sizable data centers. (Yes, Microsoft also is a cloud-technology purveyor, but what it has in common with the other board members is its status as a cloud-service provider that owns and runs data centers.)

Underneath the board of directors are member companies. Most of these are vendors seeking to serve the needs of the ONF board members and similar cloud-service providers that share their business objective: boosting network functionality while reducing the costs associated with network operations.

Who’s Who of Networking

Among the vendor members are a veritable who’s who of the networking industry: Cisco, HP, Juniper, Brocade, Dell/Force10, IBM, Huawei, Nokia Siemens Networks, Riverbed, Extreme, and others. Also members, not surprisingly, are virtualization vendors such as VMware and Citrix, as well as the aforementioned Microsoft. There’s a smattering of SDN/OpenFlow startups, too, such as Big Switch Networks and Nicira Networks.

Of course, membership does not necessarily entail avid participation. Some vendors, including Cisco, likley would not be thrilled at any near-term prospect of OpenFlow’s widespread market adoption. Cisco would be pleased to see the networking status quo persist for as long as possible, and its involvement in ONF probably is more that of vigilant observer than of fervent proponent. In fact, many vendors are taking a wait-and-see approach to OpenFlow. Some members, including Force10, are bearish and have suggested that the protocol is a long way from delivering the maturity and scalability that would satisfy enterprise customers.

Vendors Not In Charge

Still, the board members are steering the ONF ship, not the vendors. Regardless of when OpenFlow or something like it comes of age, the rise of software-defined networking seems inevitable. Servers and storage gear have been virtualized and have become more application-driven, but networks haven’t changed much in the last several years. They’re faster, yes, but they’re still provisioned in the traditional manner, configured rather than programmed. That takes time, consumes resources, and costs money.

Major cloud-service providers, such as those on the ONF board, want network infrastructure to become more elastic, flexible, and dynamic. Vendors will have to respond accordingly, whether with OpenFlow or with some other approach that delivers similar operational outcomes and business benefits.

I’ll be following these developments closely, watching to see how the business concerns of the cloud providers and the business interests of the networking-vendor community ultimately reconcile.

Cisco and RIM: Hard Times, Different Situations

A morbid debate has ensued as to whether Cisco or RIM is in worse shape. It’s an unseemly discourse, but it seems obvious to me that Cisco, regardless of its current woes, remains in a better, stronger position than RIM, both today and well into the future.

That said, let me be absolutely clear that I believe Cisco has entered a period of decline, perhaps of the irrevocable sort. The broad industry trends — commoditized wiring-closet switches, stiff competition in the data center and the network core, the rise of cloud computing, and so forth — are not its friends. To make matters worse, Cisco is suffering from its own imperial overstretch, and from a cultural malaise that afflicts and challenges all big corporations that reach a certain stage of maturity.

Not the Same

This Cisco, the one you see today, is not the one that ruled the networking industry late in the last century and early in this one. That beast, which seemed so unstoppable on its path to dominance — capturing and keeping customers, charming partners,  drawing prospective suppliers, and dazzling industry analysts — seems to have left the building. It has the same head, figuratively and literally, but it’s uncoordinated now and tends to get in its own way at least as often as it bulldozes the competition.

Even so, Cisco is a long way from dead. It has a prodigious installed base of customers, some major partnerships that still matter, and a chance to step back, reflect on what’s happening in the market, and alter course accordingly. It won’t be easy — some believe Cisco’s leadership is better at building than fixing  — but Cisco need not slide into an industry abyss.

RIM, too, has an opportunity for renewal, but its situation is far more daunting. As with Cisco, the trends — an app-driven market dynamic; consumerization of IT and “bring your own device” (BYOD) to work; the strength of Apple at the high end of the smartphone market, Google Android nearly everywhere else, and low-cost competitors in the developing world; the rise of mobile-device-management (MDM) suites that can support heterogeneous mobile platforms — are not in its favor. Also like Cisco, RIM has lost its way, failing to recognize foreboding trends and lethal competitors until serious damage had been done.

Bigger Challenges, Fewer Resources

Still, RIM is worse off in many respects. First, it’s no longer an industry leader. It’s been usurped by Google’s Android and by Apple in smartphones, and there’s a danger that Microsoft, and perhaps even HP, could knock it further down the charts. Cisco, notwithstanding its current hardships, doesn’t have that problem; it’s still number one in enterprise networking (switching and routing), though competitors are chipping away at its market share and it has lost ground in other important, faster-growing markets, such as the application delivery controller (ADC) space, where F5 leads.

Furthermore, Cisco still has customers that will buy into the brand and the higher prices that accompany it. That could change — nearly everything can change — but Cisco retains that benefit today. There might fewer of those customers than there were a couple years ago, but the population of Ciscotown remains considerable. Unfortunately for RIM, the brand-equity die has been cast, and it has suffered a decline not only in the eyes of consumers but in many enterprises as well. Apple iPhones and iPads are proliferating in enterprise settings and vertical markets, often supplanting BlackBerry devices, at a rate few predicted.

RIM also has fewer resources than Cisco. True, it’s fighting competitive battles on fewer fronts than the networking giant, but Cisco has the option of reining in its aspirations and allocating its ample resources with greater strategic focus. RIM can only do so much.

Mitigate Risk or Roll Dice?

It’s ironic that, just a short time ago, some analysts and pundits were suggesting that Cisco buy RIM. My point is not to mock them — this industry will humble anybody who tries to predict its course — but to illustrate just how much a combination of strategic missteps and the vagaries of fate can change the game in relatively short order.

The best anybody out there can do is to find a balance between risk mitigation and success probability, which often (but not always) are closely interrelated. Sometimes, though, you need to take a big risk to qualify for a big reward.

Cisco can still play some risk-mitigation cards, while RIM needs to roll the dice.

Muglia’s Move to Juniper

Juniper Networks announced yesterday that Bob Muglia, who spent 23 years at Microsoft and was president of that company’s Server and Tools Business (STB) until January, will be joining the networking vendor to oversee its end-to-end software strategy and lead its just-created Software Solutions Division.

Back at Microsoft, Muglia and CEO Steve Ballmer appeared to hold diverging views on strategy for the STB. Those views apparently were not reconciled, so Ballmer ousted Muglia and sought “new leadership” — but only for the STB, not for the company as a whole.

Big Mandates

Until he left Microsoft, Muglia’s group was responsible for a remit that encompassed infrastructure software, developer tools, and cloud-computing platforms, including products such as Windows Server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, and the Windows Azure Platform. It was a big mandate, and Muglia will have a similarly ambitious charge at Juniper. As Jim Duffy notes at NetworkWorld:

“Juniper is centralizing its software business to further position it as a company differentiator and growth engine. Included in it will be software for Juniper’s SRX Series and vGW Series security platforms, MobileNext packet core offering for mobile operators, Junos Pulse mobile security suite for managing devices, and the Junos Space platform for developing and deploying network applications.”

Muglia, quoted below, seems eager for the challenge:

 “The emergence of cloud, heterogeneous devices connecting, and applications (executing) in a much more automated state creates an opportunity to bring software into the network and connect to all devices. Networks are configured and managed by manual processes, people with mice and keyboards, and separate from the application infrastructure. There is no way to deal with the scale of the amount of configuration changes in the network to ensure the reliability and consistency of the environment. Networks will be applications driven; applications are at the center of intelligence and business value. The infrastructure as a whole is being driven by the applications. Juniper is very well positioned to take this on with QFabric for cloud, and a single operating system platform. There’s not a lot of legacy mess to clean up.”

Raising the Software Quotient

Except for the last sentence, where Muglia offers an enthusiastic plug for QFabric, those words could have come from an executive at F5 Networks, or from those at other networking vendors trying to adjust to an application-centric data-center overhaul that already has virtualized and transmogrified the server and storage spheres, and is beginning to do likewise to the realm of network infrastructure.

From what I have seen, Juniper needed a further infusion of software bloodlines. Muglia could be an excellent addition to the leadership team, able to bring a heightened software sensibility to what remains a hardware-centric corporate culture. In some ways, though they are radically different companies in many respects, Juniper and Dell are both struggling to get away from a hardware-oriented culture. Yes, there’s a lot of software that goes Juniper networking equipment, but some within the company still are struggling, quite literally, to think “outside the box.”

The effort is there, though, and the spirit is willing, which is why I think Muglia was brought aboard. There’s tremendous potential in the entire Junos-based strategy and its software portfolio, including Pulse for mobile security and device management and the Space platform.

That’s why I see the Muglia move as a potentially significant and positive development for Juniper.

New Place, Familiar Faces

Muglia shouldn’t take long to acclimate to his new corporate home. As Mary Jo Foley wrote, it is well populated with former Microsoft executives. Heading that list is Juniper CEO Kevin Johnson, but he’s joined by a number of others, including Gerri Elliott, chief sales Officer; Brad Brooks, VP of worldwide enterprise marketing; Eddie Amos, VP of developer marketing; and Lauren Cooney, director of developer evangelism.

Reporting directly to Johnson and starting at Juniper after he leaves Microsoft in September, Muglia should have immediate rapport with his new boss.