Why Google Isn’t A Networking Vendor

Invariably trenchant and always worth reading, Ivan Pepelnjak today explores what he believes Google is doing with OpenFlow. As it turns out, Pepelnjak posits that Google is doing more with other technologies than it is with OpenFlow, seemingly building a modern routing platform and a traffic-engineering application deserving universal envy and admiration.

In assessing what Google is doing, Pepelnjak would seem to get it right, as he usually does, but I would like to offer modest commentary on a couple minor points. Let’s start with his assessment of how Google is using OpenFlow:

“Google is using OpenFlow between controller and adjacent chassis switches because (like every other vendor) they need a protocol between the control plane and forwarding planes, and they decided to use an already-documented one instead of inventing their own (the extra OpenFlow hype could also persuade hardware vendors to implement more OpenFlow capabilities in their next-generation chipsets).”

OpenFlow: Just A Piece of the Puzzle

First off, Pepelnjak is essentially right. I’m not going to quarrel with his central point, which is that Google adopted OpenFlow as a communication protocol between (and that separates) the control plane and the forwarding plane. That’s OpenFlow’s purpose, its raison d’être, so it’s no surprising that Google would use it that way. As Chris Rock might say, that’s what OpenFlow is supposed to do.

Larger claims made on behalf of OpenFlow are not its fault. Subsequently, Pepelnjak states that OpenFlow is but a small piece of the networking puzzle at Google, and he’s right there, too. I don’t think it’s possible for OpenFlow to be a bigger piece. As a protocol between the control and forwarding planes, OpenFlow is what it is.

Beyond that, though, Pepelnjak refers to Google as a “vendor,” which I find odd.

Not a Networking Vendor

In many ways, Google is a vendor. It’s a cloud vendor, it’s an advertising vendor, it’s a SaaS vendor, and so on. But, in this particular context, Pepelnjak seems to be classifying Google as a networking vendor. That would be an incorrect designation, and here’s why: Vendors sell things, they vend. Google doesn’t sell the homegrown networking hardware and software that it implements internally. It’s doing it only for itself, not as a business proposition that would involve it proffering the technology to customers. As such, it should not be tossed into the same networking-vendor bucket as a Cisco, a Juniper, or an HP.

In fact, Google is going the roll-your-own route with its network infrastructure precisely because it couldn’t get what it wanted from networking vendors. In that respect, it is the anti-vendor. Google and the other gargantuan cloud-service providers who steer the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) promulgated software-defined networking (SDN) and espoused OpenFlow because they wanted network infrastructure to be different from the conventional approaches advanced by networking vendors and the traditional networking industry.

Whatever else one might think of the ONF, it’s difficult not to conclude that it represents an instance of customers (in this case, cloud-service providers) attempting to wrest strategic control from vendors to set a technological agenda. Google, a networking vendor? Only if one misunderstands the origins and purpose of ONF.

Creating a Market

Nonetheless, Google might have a hidden agenda here, and Pepelnjak touches on it when he writes parenthetically that “the extra OpenFlow hype could also persuade hardware vendors to implement more OpenFlow capabilities in their next-generation chipsets.”

Well, yes. Just because Google has chosen to roll its own and doesn’t like what the networking industry is selling today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has closed the door to buying from vendors in the future, presuming said vendors jump on the ONF bandwagon and start developing the sorts of products Google wants. Google doesn’t want to disclose the particulars of its network infrastructure, which it views as a source of competitive advantage and differentiation, but it is not averse to hyping OpenFlow in a bid to spur the supply side of the market to get with the SDN program.

Later in his post, Pepelnjak notes that Google used “standard protocols (BGP and IS-IS) like everyone else and their traffic engineering implementation (and probably the northbound API) is proprietary. How is that different (from the openness perspective) from networks built from Juniper’s or Cisco’s gear?”

Critical Distinction

Again, my point is that Google is not a vendor. It is customer building network technologies for its own use. By the very nature of that implicit (non)-transaction, the technologies in question will be proprietary. They’re not going anywhere other than Google’s data-center network. Google owns them, and it is in full control of defining them and releasing them on a schedule that suits Google’s internal objectives.

It’s rather different for vendors, who profit — if they’re doing it right — from the commercial sale of products and technologies to customers. There might be value in proprietary products and technologies in that context, but customers need to ensure that the proprietary value outweighs the proprietary risks, typically represented by vendor lock-in and upgrade cycles dictated by the vendor’s product-release schedule.

Google is not a vendor, and neither are the other companies driving the agenda of the ONF. I think it’s critical to make that distinction in the context of SDN and, to a lesser extent, OpenFlow.

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2 responses to “Why Google Isn’t A Networking Vendor

  1. I think you’re missing the mark on exactly who Google might be interested in influencing by hyping OpenFlow. Google no longer cares about the traditional networking vendors (they design their own gear), but they *do* care about the merchant silicon vendors. They still need Broadcom, et al. to design greater capabilities into their chipsets since even Google doesn’t do that (and probably isn’t interested in doing so).

    You’re right, though, that Google isn’t a “vendor” in the sense you’re using. I’m not entirely sure, however, that this more strict interpretation of the word is where Mr. Pepelnjak was going. They are a vendor if you view their one and only customer as themselves, and I suspect they intend to continue to be.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that Google probably will never buy from a Cisco or a Juniper again. I also agree that Google would like an OF/SDN hardware ecosystem to evolve, and it would like to see that ecosystem built on a strong foundation of merchant silicon.

      As for use of the word “vendor,” there is no ambiguity about the meaning of the word. I am on record here as saying that words have meaning, and I mean it. :-) Vendor means “a person or company offering something for sale.” Google is not selling to others the networking gear that it develops for its own use; therefore, logically and denotatively, it is not a vendor.

      Ivan no longer calls Google a vendor in his post. I think, in this particular case, Google should be categorized as a developer and manufacturer of networking infrastructure for its own use. I think the distinction is important, for the reasons mentioned in the post.

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