Monthly Archives: March 2012

Cisco’s Latest Spin-In Reportedly Poaching Aggressively (And Not At Cisco This Time)

Insieme (everybody keeps calling it “Insiemi,” but I have been told that the correct spelling is the former) is back in the spotlight again, even though nobody can say with any precision exactly what the Cisco spin-in venture has been mandated to do.

Om Malik is the latest industry observer to attempt to shed light on Insieme. He doesn’t provide many specifics on what Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero, Prem Jain and their band of merry engineers will be building — “a new very high-speed data center switch along with a software management platform,” Om offers — but he does deliver some interesting insight into how the spin-in venture is recruiting new members to its team.

Om’s sources tell him that Insieme is aggressively raiding the engineering ranks of Cisco competitors, allegedly offering nearly $2 million a pop as an inducement — and that’s quite an inducement — to engineers and executives at competing companies willing to jump ship and join the networking pirates at the Cisco-sponsored venture.

Although Om, through his sources, originally reported significant executive defections from Nicira (four) and Arista (four), he has since revised his post to indicate that Insieme has managed to snare five engineers in total, plucked from Arista, Nicira, Big Switch Networks, and Cumulus Systems. Other engineers at those companies are said to have declined offers to join the Cisco spin-in venture.

Change of Tack

Nonetheless, this tactic marks a change for Cisco spin-in creations fronted by Mazzola, Cafiero, and Jain. Usually, their ventures plunder from within the ranks of Cisco rather than from beyond the walls of the networking giant. As written here and elsewhere previously, the spin-in ventures’ practice of recruiting Cisco’s best and brightest — or at least those seen as most useful to the project at hand — has engendered envy and resentment among those not tapped for the gravy train.

To be sure, Cisco’s previous spin-in ventures — including the Mazzola-helmed, Italian-themed Andiamo and Nuova — included engineers recruited from company’s other than Cisco. Still, there’s no question that Mazzola and friends poached extensively from the engineering teams with which they were most familiar. One wonders whether Chambers and the Cisco executive team might be trying to discourage that practice this time around.

Another plausible explanation is that the hardware-heavy Insieme engineering team is looking for engineering capabilities in software, and specifically in software-defined networking (SDN), that are better found at the aforementioned companies than at Cisco itself.

Either way, the incipient Insieme appears to be roiling the network-engineering waters in Silicon Valley.

Further Thoughts on Cisco’s Latest Spin-In Venture

This is a follow-up post to my last missive regarding Cisco’s latest reported spin-in venture, Insieme (not Insiemi, apparently). As you will recall, we had heard for some time that Cisco’s masters of the spin-in venture were getting back in the saddle for at least one more stretch run.

The question had become not whether they’d come back, but what they would put on the playlist for their reunion. Now, as indicated in an article in the New York TImes, the widely held assumption is that Insieme will provide Cisco’s answer to software-defined networking (SDN).

But, as we know, SDN means different things to different vendors. Given the composition and capabilities of the team at Insieme, I wouldn’t expect this group to recreate the sort of logically centralized control plane and server-based programmable networking that the likes of Nicira and Big Switch Networks have championed.

ASICs in the Mix 

After all, the central protagonists at Insieme — Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero, Prem Jain — are hardware engineers. Throughout their long, storied, and illustrious careers, they have built switches. There is no reason to think they will be cast against type in this particular venture. A variation on what they’ve done in their previous spin-in ventures for Cisco —  Andiamo, which was responsible for Cisco’s storage-area networking (SAN) switches, and Nuova, which provided Cisco with its Nexus data-center switches — is probably what they’ll do this time, too.

Admittedly, there is some software talent on the Insieme roster. Network World’s Jim Duffy reported that Ronak Desai, the architect of Cisco’s NX-OS FabricPath and Virtual Device Context software, and of the MDS SAN switch operating system, is on the team. Michael Smith, a distinguished engineer who worked on Cisco’s Nexus 1000v virtual switch, also might be part of the Insieme squad.

Still, John Chambers recently reiterated Cisco’s unswerving commitment to the propriety switching ASIC, which Cisco sees a point of differentiation against Arista Networks and others. Chambers’ words suggest that Cisco isn’t about to get the newfangled SDN religion. In fact, if anything, they suggest that Cisco is still working from its well-thumbed playbook of ASIC-based switches in a network-centric world.

Moreover, with Tom Edsall, the lead ASIC architect on the Nexus and MDS switching lines, reportedly on board with Insieme, we can probably safely deduce that the ASIC will be front and center in whatever the spin-in effort delivers. So, if it’s an SDN architecture Insieme has been mandated to deliver, it will be one with a distributed control plane and absolutely no role for dumb, off-the-rack switches.

Two Possible Scenarios

With regard to the increasingly contested definition of SDN — look no further than the marketing messages of certain vendors or to the software-driven networking hijinks now occurring in the IETF — there’s also the possibility that what the Insieme pack are doing could be only incidentally connected to what many consider SDN.

With that in mind, I want to turn to some intriguing speculation that William Koss, now at Plexxi, has provided on what he believes Cisco’s latest spin-in venture might be building. In a post on his blog, Koss reviews Cisco’s switching history, much of it involving the three musketeers now reuniting at Insieme, He then explains why Cisco does spin-in ventures before he offers his assessment of what Insieme might be  trying to accomplish.

He offers two possible paths Insieme might take. The first path would involve Cisco attending to what Koss terms “unfinished business” (including Brocade) in the storage space. In this scenario, the Insieme team would build a successor switch to the Nexus line with storage-networking hooks. This switch would be intended as a crushing reply to Xsigo’s I/O Director, while simultaneously representing an attempt to limit further market encroachments by Arista Networks, currently well entrenched in low-latency application environments, and also to potentially inoculate against potential traction from SDN startups such as Nicira and Big Switch.

As for the second option, he envisions something proceeding along an “SDN OpenFlow strategy path.” In this scenario, Koss foresees a  new platform that functions as a “Nexus OS-to-OpenFlow arbitration box,” which he describes as analogous to a session border controller (SBC) between the two networks. This would give Cisco’s installed base to SDN-like capabilities while keeping them wrapped inside Cisco’s proprietary cocoon.

Surprise Not Likely

In my view, both paths described by Koss are plausible scenarios for Insieme.  My gut feeling is that the first is more likely. The second option is more software intensive, and it would seem to feature less of the ASIC and storage-networking expertise possessed by known members of the Insieme team. Perhaps Mario, Luca, and Prem will blaze an entirely different path and surprise us all, but Koss might be on the right track with his speculative musings.

As always, we shall see.

Cheriton Sees Opportunity in Infrastructure

When I wrote my first post on this blog, way back in 2006, I assumed that technology infrastructure largely was a spent force. I expected incremental enhancements, gradual advances, but I didn’t anticipate another major boom or a significant disruption of the established order in what once had been a vibrant technology space.

While the technology industry as a whole can suffer from blinkered, willful optimism, perhaps I was afflicted by a different condition entirely. I might have been too pessimistic, too gloomy, dispirited by the technology downturn of the early 2000s and the lack of a meaningful, sustained recovery in the years that immediately followed.

By the way, when I refer to technology, I’m not talking about social networking such as Facebook. I understand that there’s a lot of technology behind the scenes at Facebook, but the customer-facing “social” phenomenon leaves me cold. I never did see the point of Facebook from a user’s perspective, though I understood how it could serve as an unprecedented data-mining machine for advertisers.

Opportunity Renewed

Fortunately, though, I was wrong about the decline and fall of infrastructure. It took a while, but a new era of infrastructure has arisen, based on virtualization, orchestration, and automation. Technological possibilities that we could only dream about more than a decade ago are now possible. In the networking realm, software-defined networking (SDN) is enabling comparatively outmoded network infrastructure to catch up with compute and, to a lesser degree, storage infrastructure as the promise of an application-driven, programmable data center comes into clearer view.

Suddenly, at long last, there’s new opportunity in infrastructure.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either. There are people who’ve designed and developed industry-leading technologies who espouse the same opinion. Some of these people are billionaires, and they’re backed their convictions with substantial sums of money, investing in technologies and companies with clear mandates to remake IT infrastructure.

Outrageously Wealthy Canuck

One of those people is David Cheriton, a billionaire who wears many hats. He is Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where he researches networking and distributed systems, and he also serves as a co-founder and chief scientist at Arista Networks. He’s also an investor in startup companies. Back in 1998, one early-stage company in which he invested, along with Arista co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, was Google.  The duo made a similar early investment in VMware, so they’ve done okay.

Born in Vancouver, raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and ranked 37th on a Wikipedia list of “richest Canadians”** — Forbes ranks him 21st among outrageously wealthy Canucks  — Cheriton recently spoke about innovation and entrepreneurship at a Churchill Club event in Silicon Valley. The event was co-hosted and organized by the Hua Yuan Science and Technology Association and also featured Ken Xie, who founded NetScreen (acquired by Juniper Networks in 2004) and is now president and CEO of unified-threat-management/firewall vendor Fortinet, a company he also founded.

In addition to his apparent knack as an investor, Cheriton has considerable firsthand experience as an entrepreneur and an innovator. Before he and Bechtolsheim combined forces at Arista Networks,  they founded Granite Systems, a Gigabit-Ethernet switching concern that was acquired by Cisco in 1996 for about $220 million in stock, back when shares of Cisco were continuously on the rise.  Subsequently, after the Google investment, Bechtolsheim and Cheriton combined forces again to found Kealia, which specialized in server technology based on AMD’s Opteron microprocessor.  That company was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2004, providing technology included in the Sun Fire X4500 storage product.

Room for Improvement

In 2005, Cheriton and Bechtolsheiim followed up with Arista, then called Arastra, and its 10-GbE switching technology, which brings us to the approximate present and back to something Cheriton said at the Churchill Club event late last month. Noting that people tend to become preoccupied with the latest developments in social networking and mobility, Cheriton expressed his enthusiasm for infrastructure, as an investment vehicle as well as an area in which he has an abiding technical interest. As quoted in a BusinessWeek article, Cheriton said: “I think there is an opportunity to go back and say, ‘Gee, I think there’s lot of room for improvement in the infrastructure.’ ”

Reinforcing that point, he noted that technology infrastructure today is predicated on ideas that are about 30 years old. The network was the place to start the infrastructure refurbishment, Cheriton believed, and Arista Networks grew from that conviction.

But Cheriton hasn’t stopped there. He also founded a company called Optumsoft, about which not much is known. On its website, Optumsoft is described as an early-stage startup company “taking distributed computing and distributed software development mainstream.” Quoting from the website:

Recent advancements in multi-core computing systems, coupled with the ever increasing functional and performance requirements of software has created an exciting market opportunity for addressing the programmatic and architectural issues involved in modern software development. Optumsoft is addressing this growing market with a novel technology approach that is transparent, scalable, and portable, resulting in significant improvement to the development and maintenance of distributed/parallel structured software systems. Early production usage by commercial clients has validated the technology and value proposition.

Last fall, an anonymous source suggested on Quora that what Optumsoft was building related to “how to structure object-oriented RPC in a way that makes it easy to build robust systems.  The technology behind Arista’s EOS is based on some of these ideas, as was software structure at a previous startup, Kealia.  The technology includes an IDL and a C++ runtime, similar to what you’d get using CORBA.”

Nebula and Tintri

On the investment side, Cheriton and Bechtolsheim have put money into Nebula, which has venture-capital backing from Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and Highland Capital Partners. Built on OpenStack, the Nebula Enterprise Cloud Appliance is designed to provision and configure flexible, scalable cloud-computing infrastructure. Although it doesn’t say so on the Nebula website, previous reports indicated that Arista’s networking technology is included in the Nebula appliance.

According to the BusinessWeek article,  Cheriton also has a stake in Tintri, co-founded by Kieran Harty and Mark Gritter. Harty was EVP of R&D at VMware for seven years, and Gritter was one of the first of Cheriton’s employees at Kealia. They’ve assembled a PhD-laden engineering team that has developed a virtual-machine-aware storage appliance designed for virtualized environments, which the company says have been underserved by older storage technology that apparently contributes to “VM stall.”

Another early-stage investment that Cheriton made was in Aster Data Systems, a purveyor of a massively parallel DBMS that runs on clustered commodity servers. Already a minority owner of Aster, Teradata bought the 89% of the company it didn’t own for $263 million last year.

Cheriton has made bets on infrastructure, and he’ll likely make others. It’s an encouraging sign for those of us who gravitate to that part of the industry.

(**No, I am not on the list, but thanks for asking.)

What Cisco’s SDN Spin-In Move Tells Us

Many of you have followed a series of posts I’ve written on rumblings that Cisco’s renowned engineering troika  of Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero, and Prem Jain would be reuniting to launch another venture.

Rumors last summer suggested that they might be incubating a networking company, perhaps in conjunction with a Valley venture capitalist. Subsequent rumors indicated that the Cisco engineering trio was building a switch as part of a startup company, maybe even as part of another Cisco spin-in company.

Spinning Back

During the last two weeks, rumors intensified and suggested that the threesome was building a data-center switch attuned to the requirements of cloud computing. It also became clear that this would indeed be another Cisco spin-in company. Now we learn, from a report in the New York Times, that the switch in question will feature software-defined networking (SDN), and that the principals behind the spin-in venture, called Insieme — it means “collection” or “assembly” in Italian — are involved in business negotiations with Cisco.

We don’t know much other than that, though. When asked by the New York Times about Insiemi, Cisco CEO John Chambers invoked a cone of silence, saying “we do not discuss our plans or internal investments.”

Well, hey, somebody’s been discussing this particular plan, if not the specific investment terms pertaining to it, because this has not been a particularly well-kept secret. Information has leaked out about it, some of it perhaps intentionally, for some time.

The negotiations relating to Insiemi will be about remuneration, deliverables, and timelines. Cisco will tie compensation to the realization of specific objectives. Now that it has come this far, getting reported in the New York Times, I doubt that it will go back into mothballs. It’s doubtless moving ahead.

Messages Imparted

So, what does that tell us?

Well, it tells us a few things. First, it indicates that Cisco felt it again needed the services of its spin-in wrecking crew, the team that came to Cisco initially in its first-ever acquisition, of Crescendo Communications back in 1993. That brought Cisco the Catalyst line of switches, which was no small prize, along with a talented roster of personnel that played a significant role in the company’s growth into an industry giant. After coming to Cisco, Crescendo’s engineering stars — they would be in Cisco’s Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed — then were involved in Cisco’s highest-profile spin-in efforts: Andiamo for storage networking, and Nuova, which developed data-center technology that found its way into Nexus switches and UCS blade servers.

That Cisco felt it needed the spin-in touch, especially involving this particular group of engineers, also tells us implicitly that Cisco didn’t feel the job could be done by the teams it already has working inside the company, including David Yen’s Server Access and Virtualization Technology Group (SAVTG). That’s interesting in and of itself, because Yen came over from Juniper Networks to effectively take the reins from Mazzola, Cafiero, and Jain, who then transitioned to “support Cisco in an advisory capacity.”  In that advisory capacity, which they assumed last spring, the trio reported to John Chambers directly, not to Yen’s bosses, senior vice presidents Padmasree Warrior and Pankaj Patel.

Potentials Risks As Well As Rewards

And now they’re back in the spin-in saddle, and you can make of that what you will. Rest assured, however, that much will be made of it on the Cisco campus . . . which brings us to the third thing that this move tells us.

These spin-in moves are not universally popular within Cisco Systems. While Cisco had entirely valid business and technology reasons for instituting its spin-in model, the practice has generated much internal discord and friction. Cisco employees not chosen to participate in the spin-in ventures have been known to become alienated and invidious. (I suppose “pissed off” might sum it up, but we usually aim for a higher order of decorum and eloquence around here.)

That was one of the reasons that I wondered, back in the spring of 2010, whether Cisco might have retired its spin-in move. While some external observers contend that Cisco overpays for its spin-in ventures, Cisco insiders who don’t get to travel on the spin-in express aren’t pleased about left behind on the station platform. In 2008, former Cisco executive Jayshree Ullal, who now serves as CEO of Arista Networks (more on which later), made the following comment to Forbes about the malignant consequences of spin-in ventures:

“Spin-ins are a creative model to accelerate innovation and bring in engineers you couldn’t normally recruit–and financial gains go to entrepreneurs, not venture capitalists,” says Jayshree Ullal, a 15-year Cisco veteran who built the 7000 then left last May as the Nuova people came back in. “But it’s a nightmare when the guy in the next cubicle is a multimillionaire and you aren’t, because you weren’t chosen.” She left Cisco for personal reasons, she says, adding that she had to deal with a lot of unhappy employees over the spin-in structure.

Cisco Takes SDN Threat Seriously

So, there will he happy employees and unhappy ones at Cisco, those who get tapped for the not-so-secret spin-in society and those who get left behind to maintain the workaday business. How troublesome that becomes, and whether it results a new stream of defections, remains to be seen.

One of those previous defections involved the aforementioned Jayshree Ullal, now CEO of Arista Networks. I intimated above that Arista figured into this story, and it does, as do Nicira Networks and the new breed of SDN purveyors.

If Cisco is betting big on a Mazzola-Cafiero-Jain spin-in venture related to SDN — and past performance tells us that these ventures are never small wagers — it tells that the Cisco takes very seriously the threat posed in the data center by Arista, which has staked its own SDN ground, and by SDN startups such as Nicira.

Cisco’s conception of SDN, as fashioned by its spin-in wrecking crew, might diverge in interesting ways from those others have put forward. Watch how terms are defined, and who does the defining, as the battle for hearts, minds, and wallets intensifies.

Cisco: SDN if Necessary, but Not Necessarily SDN

Cisco CEO John Chambers recently gave interviews to a number of technology journalists. The main point Chambers sought to hammer home was that Cisco had successfully “reinvented” itself after suffering a significant setback during the economic downturn.

Although Chambers spoke about several product lines and technologies — with video, a perennial favorite of the Cisco CEO, again receiving lavish attention — I will devote this post to what Chambers had to say about Cisco’s response to software-defined networking (SDN).

Going Old School

Reading what was both on the lines and between them, I think it’s safe to infer that Cisco’s data-center switching strategy will turn on ASICs, hardware, software, and services. While Cisco says it is open to working with SDN — OpenFlow is a relatively minor consideration, so let’s put it aside here — Cisco’s conception of software-defined networking is unlikely to bear any similarity to what we’re seeing from startups such as Nicira Networks or Big Switch Networks.

In stating at the outset that ASICs will continue to play a prominent role in Cisco’s switching strategy, Chambers tips his hand on SDN. He’s basically telling us that Cisco, if it espouses SDN at all, will favor an old-school interpretation of the technology, with a distributed control plane running across a switch-centric architecture. Contrast that with the logically centralized, server-based control planes being promoted by the aforementioned startups.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that CIsco would adopt a grudging, incremental approach to SDN. Even today, Cisco makes most of its money selling switches and routers at robust margins. Anything it can do to maintain perceived switch value — and ASICs historically have played a big part in fashioning that value-enhancing narrative — will be aggressively pursued by the company. Notwithstanding that it has become a server vendor with its Unified Computing System (UCS), Cisco doesn’t want to accelerate a shift toward a compute-centric model of programmable networking in which applications and controller software on servers play omniscient puppet master to dumb switches. Where’s the Cisco margin in that vision?

Passenger on the Bus

Yes, that was a rhetorical question, and it probably didn’t require the imposition of a question mark. Indeed, Cisco isn’t constituted to play a leading role in the sort of brave new SDN world that has arisen from the campuses of Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other halls of academia.

Cisco will argue that the customer, and the aggregation of customers that form the demand side of the market, will be the ultimate arbiter. In making that assertion, Cisco would be right, but let’s consider that a certain constituency of customers, represented by large cloud service providers, already is voting with its data-center wallets and its considerable industry influence to champion the new model of SDN, which helps it “get the network out of the way,” innovate with new services, and reduce operating and capital expenditures.

Yes, Chambers touts Cisco’s membership in the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), but he must know that Cisco rides that bus and doesn’t drive it. As we all know by now, representatives from the largest of service providers populate the ONF’s board of directors, set its strategic course, and guide its technological agenda. Like other networking vendors, Cisco is a bit player in the ONF. For a company so cocksure and accustomed to dominating markets and standards bodies, Cisco cannot be pleased at its relatively plebeian status within the ONF.

Enterprise Fortress  

What’s more, the ONF has no desire to cede power to Cisco in the future. Dan Pitt, the ONF’s executive director, stated recently that “no vendors are allowed on the ONF board,”  and that “vendors can be on (working) groups but not steer them.” So, barring a dramatic change, Cisco’s influence on the ONF’s direction, and hence on SDN as defined by the ONF, will be marginal.

Fortunately for Cisco, the ONF is focused primarily on the needs of its board members. While a growing proportion of applications and computing cycles are moving to the public cloud, the enterprise networking market remains prodigious. Indeed, a great many enterprise data centers have invested in Cisco network infrastructure and architecture.  As before, it will be difficult to persuade them to take their business elsewhere.

So, Cisco will fight a rearguard action against SDN and against software-driven networks predicated on merchant silicon. Looking to its past for future guidance, Cisco will continue to wager heavily on its ASICs, perhaps with a new twist here and there. For the most part, though, it will be business as usual. And business, in the enterprise and among smaller service providers, still is pretty good for Cisco.

The company isn’t in danger of dropping off the technology map, not even close. But there is a threat on he horizon, and past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.

Contingency Plan

For that reason, Cisco probably should have two sets of strategic plans — one for the near to intermediate term (which seems to be the plan it already has), and another that looks further ahead. In that plan, Cisco should envision a worst-case scenario — at least from Cisco’s perspective — one in which the SDN tide sweeps along smaller cloud providers and then begins to make incursions into large enterprises.

Even though it might not play out that way, Cisco needs to prepare for it anyway. The company needs to tap into some of Andy Grove’s “healthy paranoia,” because the compute-centric model of SDN poses an existential threat to the core of Cisco’s business.

As such, Cisco needs a proactive contingency plan, featuring acquisitions as opposed to incremental in-house development. Perhaps Cisco already has such a plan. If it does, Chambers and his executive team will keep it under their hats. There’s no point turning a worst-case scenario into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Timing, as the saying goes, is everything.

Arista’s Adaptable Approach to SDN

In an earlier post regarding Arista Networks’ march toward an IPO, I wrote that I would provide an overview of the company’s positioning on software-defined networking (SDN), which now follows. I think the subject is worth exploring given the buzz generated both by the IPO-bound Arista, with its notable market successes in high-frequency trading and other application environments requiring low-latency switching, and by SDN itself.

Last fall, when OpenFlow fever reached a boiling point, Arista Networks’ CEO Jayshree Ullal pointed out that it was just one mechanism of many that could be leveraged in the service of SDN. Among the others, she opined, were existing command-line interfaces (CLIs), Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), Network Configuration Protocol (NETCONF), OpenStack (with its Quantum project), as well as APIs in VMware’s vSphere virtualization software.

The Four Pillars

On the larger SDN canvas, Arista has propounded its “four pillars” of software-defined cloud networking (SDCN). You can read about Arista’s “four pillars” in a blog post written late last year by Ullal or in a white paper that can be found on Arista’s website. In both, the four pillars are identified as follows:

Pillar 1. Single Point of Management, which Arista believes can be achieved through layering atop the traditional control plane and data path of a cloud network and through coordinating configurations across multiple otherwise-independent switches. Arista says no fabric technology is required, and it says its CloudVision is up to the challenge.

Pillar 2: Single-image L2/3 Control Plane.  Here, Arista believes “standards-based L2/L3 IETF control-plane specifications plus OpenFlow options (without hype) can be a promising open augmentation for providing single image control planes in the future.”

Pillar 3. Multi-path Active-Active Data Path. The company prescribes scaling cloud networking across multiple chassis with Multi-Chassis Link Aggregation Group (MLAG) at L2 Equal Cost Multi-pathing (ECMP) at L3.

Pillar 4. Network-Wide Virtualization. Regarding this last pillar, the company says it makes sense to provision the entire network to handle any application seamlessly and so that the economics of virtualization can be properly leveraged “using controllers from VMware and their new paradigm for VMWare’s VXLANS or Open Virtualization Switching (OVS) controllers in the future.”

Best of Both Worlds?

As has been above (and in earlier posts), software-defined networking can be implemented in more than one fashion. Some networking vendors — typically industry mainstays with large installed bases of customers and firmly established business models predicated on hardware ASICs, proprietary protocols, and relatively high margins — will opt for an SDN vision that features a distributed control plane. Not for them the dramatic shift to logically centralized server-based controllers, designed to subsume networking within a computing paradigm. To the traditional networking vendor, that road looks treacherous and leads to a diminution of the status and margins associated with the beloved switch.

As neither a raw SDN startup nor a legacy networking company, Arista takes a flexible position on how SDNs can be realized. The company says customers can implement SDNs by using controllers or by using distributed-control mechanisms. Ideally, according to Arista, both means should be employed for comprehensive SDN capabilities. A presentation available online explains the company’s position on this best-of-both-worlds approach to the control plane.

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that Arista prescribes its own Linux-based Extensible Operating System (EOS) as the appropriate software foundation for its four pillars and for cloud networking in general. It also believes that “good old fashioned Ethernet scaling from 10 gigabits to 40 gigabits to 100 Gigabits and even terabits with well-defined standards and protocols for L2/L3 is the optimal approach.”

In view of the media blitz undertaken by Arista founders Andreas Bechtolsheim and David Cheriton late last year, we should expect the company’s next generation of switches to deliver as much bandwidth as Ethernet and merchant silicon will allow.

Why Many Networking Professionals Will Resist Software-Defined Networking

In the long run, I think software defined networking (SDN) is destined for tremendous success, not only at massive cloud service providers, where it already is finding favor and increased adoption, but also at smaller service providers and even — with time and perseverance — at enterprises.

It just might not happen as quickly as some expect.

Shape of Networking to Come

In a presentation last autumn at the Open Networking Summit, Nicira co-founder Nick McKeown asserted that SDN would shape the future of networking in several key respects. He said it would do so by empowering network owners and operators, by speeding the pace of innovation, by diversifying the supply chain, and by delivering a robust foundation for programmability predicated on a standardized forwarding abstraction and provable network properties.

On the whole, McKeown probably will be right, and his technological reasoning seems entirely reasonable. As in any market, however, the commercial appeal of SDN will be determined by human factors as well as by technological considerations.

The enterprise market will be the toughest nut to crack, though, and not only because the early agenda of SDN, as defined by the board members of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and others, has been focused resolutely on providing solutions for the largest of cloud service providers.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Capturing enterprise hearts and minds will be difficult for SDN, and it will be hard not just because of technological challenges, such as backward compatibility with (and investments in) existing network infrastructure, but also because of the cultural milieu and entrenched mindset of enterprise networking professionals.

I’ve written before, on two occasions actually, about how human and institutional resistance to change can strongly inhibit the commercial adoption of technologies with otherwise compelling credentials and qualifications. Generally, people fear change, especially when they suspect that the change in question will affect them adversely.

And make no mistake, software-defined networking will inspire fear and resistance in some quarters, enterprise networking professionals prominent among them.

Networking’s Cultural Artifacts

Jennifer Rexford, professor of computer science at Princeton University and a former AT&T Research staffer, wrote that one of her colleagues once observed that computer-networking people “really loved their artifacts.” Those artifacts probably would include the many distributed routing protocols that have proliferated over the years.

Software-defined networking wants to loosen emotional attachment to those artifacts, just as it wants to jettison the burgeoning bag of protocols that distinguishes networking from computer programming and other disciplines.  But many networking professionals, including those in enterprise IT departments, see their mastery of complex protocols as hallmarks of who they are and what they do.

Getting the Network “Out of the Way”

Yet there’s more to it than that. Consider the workplace implications of software-defined networks. The whole idea of SDN is to make networks programmable, to put applications and those who program and manage them in the driver’s seat, and to get the network “out of the way” of the sweeping virtualized progress that has enveloped all other data-center infrastructure.

To survive and thrive in this brave new virtual world, networking professionals might have to become more like programmers. From an organizational standpoint, even though there are compelling business and technological reasons to adopt SDN, resistance from the fraternity of networking professionals will be stiff and difficult to overcome.

In the realm of the super-sized data centers at Google and elsewhere, this isn’t a serious problem. The concepts associated with “DevOps” and with thinking outside boxes, departmental and otherwise, thrive in those precincts. Google long has eschewed the purchase of servers and networking gear from vendors, and it does things its own way. To greater or lesser degrees, other large cloud-service providers now dance to a similar beat. But the enterprise? Well, that’s a different animal altogether.

Vendors in No Hurry

Some of the new SDN startups already are meeting with pockets of resistance. They’re seeing cleavage — schism might be too strong a word, though maybe not — between cloud architects and server-virtualization specialists on one side of the house and network professionals on the opposing side. The two camps see things differently,with perspectives and priorities that are difficult to reconcile. (There are exceptions to the rule, of course, with some networking professionals eager to embrace SDN, but they currently are in the minority.)

As we’ve seen, the board of directors at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) isn’t concerned about how quickly the enterprise gets with the SDN program. I also would suggest that most networking vendors, which are excluded from the ONF’s board, aren’t in a hurry to push an SDN agenda that features logically centralized, server-based controllers. You’ll see SDN from these vendors, yes, but the control plane will be distributed until such time as enterprises and service providers (not on the ONF board) demand otherwise. That will be a while, I suspect.

Deferred Gratification

We tend to underestimate resistance to change in this industry.  Gartner devised the “trough of disillusionment”  and the technology hype cycle for good reason. Some technologies remain in that basin longer than others. Some never emerge from what becomes a bottomless pit rather than a trough.

That won’t happen to SDN.  As I wrote earlier, I think it has a bright future. Don’t be surprised, though, if the hype gets ahead of the reality. When it comes to technologies and markets, our inherent optimism occasionally is thwarted by our intrinsic resistance to change.