Monthly Archives: November 2012

For Your SDN Reading Pleasure . . .

During a Packet Pushers debate this week about the ongoing relevance of Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) involving the formidable Greg Ferro of EtherealMind.com and the lively Derick Winkworth (@cloudtoad on Twitter) of Juniper Networks, a question arose as to whether software defined networking (SDN) and MPLS were compatible.

It was then that I remembered a paper presented at HotSDN (SIGCOMM 2012) in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this summer. That paper, Fabric: A Retrospective on Evolving SDN, was authored by Nicira’s Martin Casado and Teemu Koponen, as well as by Scott Shenker (of both Nicira and UC Berkeley) and Amin Tootoochian of the University of Toronto. The paper essentially proposes that “SDN’s shortcomings . . . can be overcome by adopting the insights underlying MPLS.” It’s a great read, and I’ve written about it previously

What I haven’t written about are some of the other great papers that were presented at HotSDN. Well, I am atoning for that omission now. If you have time on your hands this weekend — or at any other time — and you have an interest in what ingenious minds are devising for SDN, I invite you to browse through the variety of papers available at the HotSDN website. You’ll find content on SDN controller and switch design, programming and debugging, support for network services, and wireless and security. On Twitter, I’ve already touted “Kandoo: A Framework for Efficient and Scalable Offloading of Control Applications,” but there are others well worth perusing. 

What strikes me about these papers is how assiduously and quickly the SDN community is closing gaps and shortcomings in the technology. Technologically, SDN is moving at a brisk pace. 

F5′s Look Ahead

I’ve always admired how F5 Networks built its business. Against what seemed heavy odds at the time, F5 took the fight to Cisco Systems and established market leadership in load balancing, which subsequently morphed into market leadership in application delivery controllers (ADC).

F5 now talks about its “Intelligent Services Platform,” which “connects any user, anywhere, from any device to the best application resources, independent of infrastructure.”

To be sure, as various permutations of cloud computing take hold and mobile devices proliferate, the market is shifting, and F5 is attempting to move with it. To get a feel for how F5 sees the world, where it sees things going, and how it intends to meet new challenges, you might want to have a look at a 211-slide (yes, that many) presentation that company executives made to analysts and investors yesterday. 

By its nature, the presentation is mostly high-level stuff, but it offers interesting nuggets on markets, products, technologies, and partnerships.  

Dell Makes Enterprise Moves, Confronts Dilemma

Dell reported its third-quarter earnings yesterday, and reactions to the news generally made for grim reading. The company cannot help but know that it faces a serious dilemma: It must continue an aggressive shift into enterprise solutions while propping up a punch-drunk personal-computer business that is staggered, bloody, and all but beaten.

The word “dilemma” is particularly appropriate in this context. The definition of dilemma is “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.” 

Hard Choices

Dell seems too attached to the PC to give it up, but in the unlikely event that Dell chose to kick to the commoditized box to the curb, it would surrender a large, though diminishing, pool of low-margin revenue. The market would react adversely, particularly if Dell were not able to accelerate growth in other areas.  

While Dell is growing its revenue in servers and networking, especially the latter, those numbers aren’t rising fast enough to compensate for erosion in what Dell calls “mobility” and “desktop.” What’s more, Dell’s storage business has gone into a funk, with “Dell-owned IP storage revenue” down 3% on a year-to-year basis.

Increased Enterprise Focus

To its credit, Dell seems to recognize that it needs to pull out all the stops. It continues to make acquisitions, most of them related to software, designed bolster its enterprise-solutions profile. Today, in fact, it announced the acquisition of Gale Technologies, and it also announced that Dario Zamarian, a former Cisco executive who has been serving as VP and GM of Dell Networking, has become vice president and general manager of  the newly formed Dell Enterprise Systems & Solutions, “focused on the delivery of converged and enterprise workload topologies and solutions.” Zamarian will report to former HP executive Marius Haas, president of Dell Enterprise Solutions Group. 

Zamarian’s former role as VP and GM of Dell Networking will be assumed by Tom Burns, who comes directly from Alcatel-Lucent, where he served as president of that company’s Enterprise Products Group, which included voice, unified communications, networking, and security solutions.

Dell has the cash to make other acquisitions to strengthen its hand in private and hybrid clouds, and we should expect it to do so.  The company would have more cash to make those moves if it were to divest its PC business, but Dell doesn’t seem willing to bite that bullet. 

That would be a difficult move to make — wiping out substantial revenue while eliminating a piece of the business that is a vestigial piece of Dell’s identity — but half measures aren’t in Dell’s long-term interests.  It needs to be all-in on the enterprise, and I think also needs to adopt a software mindset. As long as the PC business is around, I suspect Dell won’t be able to fully and properly make that transition. 

On Network Engineers and Industry Eccentrics

On Network Engineers

Alan Cohen, former marketing VP at Nicira Networks (until just after it was acquired by VMware), wrote an engrossing piece on the rise and fall of “human IT middleware.” His article deals broadly with how system and network administrators are being displaced by software developers in an IT hierarchy reordered by datacenter virtualization, automation, and cloud computing.

Previously, the future of the networking professional has been discussed and debated in a number of forums. In early 2011, back in the veritable dark ages before the ascent of software-defined networking (SDN), Ziyad Basheer, writing at Greg Ferro’s EtherealMind, wondered about how automation tools would affect network administrators. In June of this year, Derick Winkworth (aka CloudToad), in his last column at Packet Pushers before he joined Juniper Networks, opined on the rise of network-systems engineers

Also at Packet Pushers, Ethan Banks subsequently argued that network engineers could survive the onslaught of SDN if they could adapt and master new skills, such as virtualization and network programmability.  Ivan Pepelnjak, though he sounded a more skeptical note on SDN, made a similar point with the aid of his “magic graphs.” 

Regardless of when SDN conquers the enterprise, the consensus is that now is  not the time for complacency. The message: Never stop learning, never stop evolving, and stay apprised of relevant developments. 

On Industry Eccentrics 

Another story this week led me to take a different stroll down memory lane. As I read about the truly bizarre case of John McAfee, recounted in news articles and in recollections of those who knew him, I was reminded of notable eccentrics in the networking industry.

Some of you wizened industry veterans might recall Cabletron Systems, from which Enterasys was derived, run in its idiosyncratic heyday by founders Bob Levine and Craig Benson.   There’s an old Inc. article from 1991, still available online, that captures some of the madness that was Cabletron. Here’s a snippet on Levine: 

He is, after all, prone to excess. Want to know how Levine has spent his newfound wealth? He bought a tank. A real one, with a howitzer on top and turrets that spin around. Last summer, for kicks, he chased a pizza-delivery boy, and the following day while “four-wheeling in the woods,” he ran smack into a tree. He emerged with one less tooth and a concussion. The buddy with him got 17 stitches. Levine also owns 15 guns, which he has, on occasion, used to shoot up his own sprinkler system. His 67-foot Hatteras is named Soldier of Fortune. Some people swear they’ve seen the magazine of the same name lying on his desk. “I’m not a mercenary or anything,” he says with a smile. “But if business ever goes bad. . . . “

Here’s an excerpt from the same article on Benson, who later served as Governor of New Hampshire

Last summer Benson joined 40 employees for a Sunday boat trip. Afterward he ordered two of them fired immediately. One had not even started yet. “I hated him,” says Benson, who was eventually persuaded to give the new hire a chance. At sales meetings, reports Kenneth Levine, it’s standard to conduct private polls on who will go next.

You cannot make this stuff up. Well, I couldn’t.

Lest you think networking’s only colorful characters were Cabletron’s dynamic duo, I’d like to reference Henry T. Nicholas III, Broadcom’s founder and former CEO. He even had a Vanity Fair article written about him, though ultimately the lurid charges against Nicholas were dropped.

Cisco’s Chambers Sends Messages on Canada, ZTE

Cisco Systems reported its fiscal first-quarter earnings yesterday. While the market responded favorably, both in after-hours trading and in regular trading early today, some analysts questioned whether Cisco has embarked on an extended period of smooth sailing or is merely experiencing calm before further storms.

That particular vein of prognostication, while interesting, is not what I want to address today. Instead, I want to draw attention to comments made in the last couple days by Cisco CEO John Chambers, both in interviews and on Cisco’s earnings call. 

As we know, Cisco possesses a vast cash hoard, most of which sits offshore.  It’s no secret that Chambers and the Cisco board of directors would like to see the U.S. government provide a repatriation-tax holiday. That was unlikely to happen before a U.S. presidential election, but now that the voting has occurred and the ballots have been counted, Cisco and other U.S.-headquartered companies with massive amounts of offshore cash might be anxious for some near-term tax relief.

Oh, Canada? 

In a series of interviews this week, Cisco’s Chambers repeatedly extolled the virtues of Canada as a potential destination for a large portion of Cisco’s cash holdings.  Chambers says Canada is the world’s “easiest place to do business,” citing the country’s federal corporate-tax rate of 15 percent and its “great education system.” 

Now, Chambers could sincere about what he says about Canada — as a Canadian, I certainly have nothing against the place, and I would welcome Cisco investments in the country — but I think Chambers has other motives. He’s talking about moving money to Canada, but he hasn’t done it yet. When people talk before they do something, they’re often sending messages, either explicit or implicit. In this case, Chambers is speaking to the U.S. government. He’s saying: “Hey, if you don’t give me my tax holiday, I’m not going to repatriate my cash to the U.S. Instead, I’m going to take a huge pile of it to Canada, where I get a better deal from the government.”  

If the U.S. government doesn’t budge, would he actually follow through on a Canadian cash expedition? It’s possible, I suppose, but Canada, while offering lower federal levels of corporate taxation and an education system that Chambers lauds, doesn’t match the U.S. in the range of investment opportunities it would offer. How many Canadian companies, for example, would Cisco wish to acquire?  Answer: Not many — and, no, Research in Motion (RIM) would not be among them. 

China Questions

Yes, Cisco could hire some Canadian engineers, provide early-stage funding to startup companies, and spend some money on relevant research initiatives at Canadian universities. But that would not require tens of billions of dollars. So, while Chambers is talking about Canada, he’s actually talking to his own government in Washington, D.C. 

Now, let’s shift our focus to China, another country mentioned by Chambers on the Cisco earnings call. Cisco’s sales in China were flat in the first quarter, but the company’s leadership team knows that China will be critical to Cisco’s future growth. Despite the national-security concerns that have inhibited expansion by Huawei and ZTE in the United States, Chambers does not foresee a trade war with China, which has amplified recent rhetoric about what it perceives as Western protectionism

ZTE: Back in Cisco’s Good Books?

As for Huawei, Chambers said Cisco is more than holding is own competitively against China’s largest networking company. What’s more — and this is the interesting part — Chambers said he sees ZTE as more a partner than a competitor, and indicated that he’s open to “expanding that relationship.” If one considers ZTE’s product portfolio in relation to Huawei’s, what Chambers says make sense. But there’s another aspect to this story (as there often is). 

Some of you with relatively good intermediate-term memory will recall that Reuters reported on October 8 that Cisco had ended a longstanding sales partnership with ZTE “after an internal investigation into allegations that the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker sold Cisco networking gear to Iran.” What’s more, Cisco spokesman John Earnhardt issued the following unambiguous statement to Bloomberg: “Cisco has no current relationship with ZTE.” 

Then again, the Guardian reported the following day that Cisco had “curtailed” its seven-year partnership with ZTE. So, you know, things change, and perhaps they are changing again.  

Big Switch Emphasizes Ecosystem, Channel

Big Switch Networks made the news very early today — one article was posted precisely at midnight ET — with an announcement of general availability of its SDN controller, two applications that run on it, and an ecosystem of partners.

Customers also are in the picture, though it wasn’t made explicit in the Big Switch press release whether Fidelity Investments and Goldman Sachs are running Big Switch’s products in production networks.  In a Network World article, however, Jim Duffy writes that Fidelity and Goldman Sachs are “production customers for the Big Switch Open SDN product suite.” 

Controller, Applications, Ecosystem

The company’s announced products, encompassed within its Open Software Defined Networking architecture, feature the Big Network Controller, a proprietary version of the open-source Floodlight controller, and the two aforementioned applications. An SDN controller without applications is like, well, an operating system without applications. Accordingly, Big Switch has introduced Big Virtual Switch, an application for network virtualization, and Big Tap, a unified network monitoring application. 

Big Virtual Switch is the company’s answer to Nicira’s Network Virtualization Platform (NVP).  Big Switch says the product supports up to 32,000 virtual-network segments and can be integrated with cloud-management platforms such as OpenStack (Quantum), CloudStack, Microsoft System Center, and VMware vCenter.  As Big Switch illustrates on its website, Big Virtual Switch can be deployed on Big Network Controller in pure overlay networks, in pure OpenFlow networks, and in hybrid network-virtualization environments.  

According to the company, Big Virtual Switch can deliver significant CAPEX and OPEX benefits. A graphical figure — tagged Economics of Big Virtual Switchincluded in a product data sheet claims the company’s L2/L3 network virtualization facilitates “up to 50% more VMs per rack” and delivers CAPEX savings of $500,000 per rack annually and OPEX savings of $30,000 per rack annually. For those estimates, Big Switch assumes a rack size of 40 servers and suggests savings can be accrued across severs, operating-system instances, storage, networking, and operations. 

Strategies in Flux

Big Virtual Switch and Big Tap are essential SDN applications, but the company’s ultimate success in the marketplace will turn on the support its Big Network Controller receives from third-party vendors. Big Switch is aware of its external dependencies, which is why it has placed so much emphasis on its ecosystem, which it says includes A10 Networks, Arista Networks, Broadcom, Brocade, Canonical, Cariden Technologies, Citrix, Cloudscaling, Coraid, Dell, Endace, Extreme Networks, F5 Networks, Fortinet, Gigamon, Infoblox, Juniper Networks, Mellanox Technologies, Microsoft, Mirantis, Nebula, Palo Alto Networks, Piston Cloud Computing, Radware, StackOps, ThreatSTOP, and vArmour. The Big Switch press release includes an appendix of “supporting quotes” from those companies, but the company will require more than lip service from its ecosystem. 

Some companies will find that their interests are well aligned with those of Big Switch, but others are likely to be less motivated to put energy and resources into Big Switch’s SDN platform.  If you consider the vendor names listed above, you might deduce that the SDN strategies of more than a few are in flux. Some are considering whether to offer SDN controllers of their own. Even those who have no controller aspirations might be disinclined to bet too heavily or too early on a controller platform. They’ll follow the customers and the money. 

A growing number of commercial controllers are on the market (VMware/Nicira, NEC, and Big Switch) or have been announced as coming to market (IBM, HP, Cisco). Others will follow. Loyalties will shift as controller fortunes wax and wane. 

Courting the Channel 

With that in mind, Big Switch is seeking to enlist channel partners as well as technology partners. In a CRN article, we learn that Big Switch “has begun to recruit systems integrator and data center infrastructure-focused solution providers that can consult and design network architecture using Big Switch software and products from a galaxy of ecosystem partners.” In fact, Big Switch wants all its commercial sales to go through channel partners. 

In the CRN piece, Dave Butler, VP of sales at Big Switch, is candid about the symbiotic relationship the company desires from partners:

“None of our products work well alone in a data center — this is a very rigorous and rich ecosystem of partners. We’ll pay a finder’s fee to anyone who brings the right opportunity to us, but we’re not really a product sale. We need the integrators that can create a bundled solution, because that’s what makes the difference.”

. . . . “We bring them (partners) in as the specialist, and they have probably a greater touch than we might. We are not taking deals direct. Then, you have to do all the work by yourself. This is a perfect solution for their services and expertise. And, they can make money with us.”

Needs a Little Help from Its Friends

The plan is clear. Big Switch’s vendor ecosystem is meant to attract channel partners that already are selling those vendors’ products and are interested in expanding into SDN solutions. The channel partners, including SIs and datacenter-solution providers, will then bring Big Switch’s SDN platform to customers, with whom they have existing relationships. 

In theory, it all coheres. Big Switch knows it can’t go it alone against industry giants. It knows it needs more than a little help from its friends in the vendor community and the channel. 

For Big Switch, the vendor ecosystem expedites channel recruitment, and an effective channel accelerates exposure to customers. Big Switch has to move fast and demonstrate staying power. The controller race is far from over.