Category Archives: Juniper

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. 

Some Thoughts on VMware’s Strategic Acquisition of Nicira

If you were a regular or occasional reader of Nicira Networks CTO Martin Casado’s blog, Network Heresy, you’ll know that his penultimate post dealt with network virtualization, a topic of obvious interest to him and his company. He had written about network virtualization many times, and though Casado would not describe the posts as such, they must have looked like compelling sales pitches to the strategic thinkers at VMware.

Yesterday, as probably everyone reading this post knows, VMware announced its acquisition of Nicira for $1.26 billion. VMware will pay $1.05 billion in cash and $210 million in unvested equity awards.  The ubiquitous Frank Quattrone and his Quatalyst Partners, which reportedly had been hired previously to shop Brocade Communications, served as Nicira’s adviser.

Strategic Buy

VMware should have surprised no one when it emphasized that its acquisition of Nicira was a strategic move, likely to pay off in years to come, rather than one that will produce appreciable near-term revenue. As Reuters and the New York Times noted, VMware’s buy price for Nicira was 25 times the amount ($50 million) invested in the company by its financial backers, which include venture-capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed,and NEA. Diane Greene, co-founder and former CEO of VMware — replaced four years ago by Paul Maritz — had an “angel” stake in Nicira, as did as Andy Rachleff, a former general partner at Benchmark Capital.

Despite its acquisition of Nicira, VMware says it’s not “at war” with Cisco. Technically, that’s correct. VMware and its parent company, EMC, will continue to do business with Cisco as they add meat to the bones of their data-center virtualization strategy. But the die was cast, and  Cisco should have known it. There were intimations previously that the relationship between Cisco and EMC had been infected by mutual suspicion, and VMware’s acquisition of Nicira adds to the fear and loathing. Will Cisco, as rumored, move into storage? How will Insieme, helmed by Cisco’s aging switching gods, deliver a rebuttal to VMware’s networking aspirations? It won’t be too long before the answers trickle out.

Still, for now, Cisco, EMC, and VMware will protest that it’s business as usual. In some ways, that will be true, but it will also be a type of strategic misdirection. The relationship between EMC and Cisco will not be the same as it was before yesterday’s news hit the wires. When these partners get together for meetings, candor could be conspicuous by its absence.

Acquisitive Roads Not Traveled

Some have posited that Cisco might have acquired Nicira if VMware had not beaten it to the punch. I don’t know about that. Perhaps Cisco might have bought Nicira if the asking price were low, enabling Cisco to effectively kill the startup and be done with it. But Cisco would not have paid $1.26 billion for a company whose approach to networking directly contradicts Cisco’s hardware-based business model and market dominance. One typically doesn’t pay that much to spike a company, though I suppose if the prospective buyer were concerned enough about a strategic technology shift and a major market inflection, it might do so. In this case, though, I suspect Cisco was blindsided by VMware. It just didn’t see this coming — at least not now, not at such an early state of Nicira’s development.

Similarly, I didn’t see Microsoft or Citrix as buyers of Nicira. Microsoft is distracted by its cloud-service provider aspirations, and the $1.26 billion would have been too rich for Citrix.

IBM’s Moves and Cisco’s Overseas Cash Horde

One company I had envisioned as a potential (though less likely) acquirer of Nicira was IBM, which already has a vSwitch. IBM might now settle for the SDN-controller technology available from Big Switch Networks. The two have been working together on IBM’s Open Data Center Interoperable Network (ODIN), and Big Switch’s technology fits well with IBM’s PureSystems and its top-down model of having application workloads command and control  virtualized infrastructure. As the second network-virtualization domino to fall, Big Switch likely will go for a lower price than did Nicira.

On Twitter, Dell’s Brad Hedlund asked whether Cisco would use its vast cash horde to strike back with a bold acquisition of its own. Cisco has two problems here. First, I don’t see an acquisition that would effectively blunt VMware’s move. Second, about 90 percent of Cisco’s cash (more than $42 billion) is offshore, and CEO John Chambers doesn’t want to take a tax hit on its repatriation. He had been hoping for a “tax holiday” from the U.S. government, but that’s not going to happen in the middle of an election campaign, during a macroeconomic slump in which plenty of working Americans are struggling to make ends meet. That means a significant U.S.-based acquisition likely is off the table, unless the target company is very small or is willing to take Cisco stock instead of cash.

Cisco’s Innovator’s Dilemma

Oh, and there’s a third problem for Cisco, mentioned earlier in this prolix post. Cisco doesn’t want to embrace this SDN stuff. Cisco would rather resist it. The Cisco ONE announcement really was about Cisco’s take on network programmability, not about SDN-type virtualization in which overlay networks run atop an underyling physical network.

Cisco is caught in a classic innovator’s dilemma, held captive by the success it has enjoyed selling prodigious amounts of networking gear to its customers, and I don’t think it can extricate itself. It’s built a huge and massively successful business selling a hardware-based value proposition predicated on switches and routers. It has software, but it’s not really a software company.

For Cisco, the customer value, the proprietary hooks, are in its boxes. Its whole business model — which, again, has been tremendously successful — is based around that premise. The entire company is based around that business model.  Cisco eventually will have to reinvent itself, like IBM did after it failed to adapt to client-server computing, but the day of reckoning hasn’t arrived.

On the Defensive

Expect Cisco to continue to talk about the northbound interface (which can provide intelligence from the switch) and about network programmability, but don’t expect networking’s big leopard to change its spots. Cisco will try to portray the situation differently, but it’s defending rather than attacking, trying to hold off the software-based marauders of infrastructure virtualization as long as possible. The doomsday clock on when they’ll arrive in Cisco data centers just moved up a few ticks with VMware’s acquisition of Nicira.

What about the other networking players? Sadly, HP hasn’t figured out what to about SDN, even though OpenFlow is available on its former ProCurve switches. HP has a toe dipped in the SDN pool, but it doesn’t seeming willing to take the initiative. Juniper, which previously displayed ingenuity in bringing forward QFabric, is scrambling for an answer. Brocade is pragmatically embracing hybrid control planes to maintain account presence and margins in the near- to intermediate-term.

Arista Networks, for its part, might be better positioned to compete on networking’s new playing field. Arista Networks’ CEO Jayshree Ullal had the following to say about yesterday’s news:

“It’s exciting to see the return of innovative networking companies and the appreciation for great talent/technology. Software Defined Networking (SDN) is indeed disrupting legacy vendors. As a key partner of VMware and co-innovator in VXLANs, we welcome the interoperability of Nicira and VMWare controllers with Arista EOS.”

Arista’s Options

What’s interesting here is that Arista, which invariably presents its Extensible OS (EOS) as “controller friendly,” earlier this year demonstrated interoperability with controllers from VMware, Big Switch Networks, and Nebula, which has built a cloud controller for OpenStack.

One of Nebula’s investors is Andy Bechtolsheim, whom knowledgeable observers will recognize as the chief development officer (CDO) of, and major investor in, Arista Networks.  It is possible that Bechtolsheim sees a potential fit between the two companies — one building a cloud controller and one delivering cloud networking. To add fuel to this particular fire, which may or may not emit smoke, note that the Nebula cloud controller already features Arista technology, and that Nebula is hiring a senior network engineer, who ideally would have “experience with cloud infrastructure (OpenStack, AWS, etc. . . .  and familiarity with OpenFlow and Open vSwitch.”

 Open or Closed?

Speaking of Open vSwitch, Matt Palmer at SDN Centralwill feel some vindication now that VMware has purchased a company whose engineering team has made significant contributions to the OVS code. Palmer doubtless will cast a wary eye on VMware’s intentions toward OVS, but both Steve Herrod, VMware’s CTO, and Martin Casado, Nicira’s CTO, have provided written assurances that their companies, now combining, will not retreat from commitments to OVS and to Open Flow and Quantum, the OpenStack networking  project.

Meanwhile, GigaOm’s Derrick Harris thinks it would be bad business for VMware to jilt the open-source community, particularly in relation to hypervisors, which “have to be treated as the workers that merely carry out the management layer’s commands. If all they’re there to do is create virtual machines that are part of a resource pool, the hypervisor shouldn’t really matter.”

This seems about right. In this brave new world of virtualized infrastructure, the ultimate value will reside in an intelligent management layer.

PS: I wrote this post under a slight fever and a throbbing headache, so I would not be surprised to discover belatedly that it contains at least a couple typographical errors. Please accept my apologies in advance.

Juniper Steers QFabric Toward Midmarket

In taking its QFabric to mid-sized data centers, Juniper Networks has made the right decision. In my discussions with networking cognoscenti at customer organizations large and small, Juniper’s QFabric technology often engenders praise and respect. It also was perceived as beyond the reach, architecturally and financially, of many shops.

Now Juniper is attempting to get to those mid-market admirers that previously saw QFabric as above their station.

Quest for Growth

To be sure, Juniper targeted the original QFabric, the QFX 3000-G, at large enterprises and high-end service providers, addressing applications such as high-performance computing (HPC), high-frequency trading in financial services, and cloud services. In a blog post discussing the downsized QFabric QFX3000-M, R.K. Anand, EVP and general manager of Juniper’s Data Center Business Unit, writes, “ . . . the beauty of the “M” configuration is that it’s ideal for satellite data centers, new 10GbE pods and space-constrained data center environments.”

Juniper is addressing a gap here, and it’s a wise move. Still, some wonder whether it has come too late. It’s a fair question.

In pursuing the midmarket, Juniper is ratcheting up its competitive profile against the likes of Cisco Systems and HP, which also have been targeting the mid market for growth, a commodity in short supply in the enterprise-networking space these days.

Analysts are concerned about maturation and slow growth in the networking market, as well as increasing competition and “challenging” — that’s an analyst-speak euphemism for crappy –macroeconomic conditions.

Belated . . . Or Just Too Late

At its annual shindig for analysts, Juniper did little to allay those concerns, though the company understandably put an optimistic spin on its product strategy, competitive positioning, and ability to execute.  Needham and Company analyst Alex Henderson summarized proceedings as follows:

“Despite an upbeat tone to Juniper’s strategy positioning and its new product development story, management reset its long term revenue and margin targets to a lower level. Juniper lowered its revenue growth targets to 9-12% from a much older growth target of 20% plus. In addition, management lowered gross margin target to 63-66% from the prior target of 65-67%.”

Like its competitors, Juniper is eager to find growth markets, preferably those that will support robust margins. A smaller QFabric won’t necessarily provide a panacea for Juniper’s market dilemma, but it certainly won’t hurt.

It also gives Juniper’s channel partners reason to call on customers that might have been off their radar previously. As Dhritiman Dasgupta, senior director of Enterprise System and Routing at Juniper, told The VAR Guy, the channel is calling the new QFX-3000-M “their version” of the product.

We’ll have to see whether Juniper’s QFabric for mid-sized data centers qualifies as a belated arrival or as a move that simply came too late.

VCs Weigh SDN’s Risks and Rewards

I’ve been thinking about a month-old post that Matthew Palmer wrote on the SDNCentral website.

In his post, Palmer considers that Arista, Insieme, and Vyatta were not financed by traditional venture capitalists. He further questions to what extent venture capitalists will plow money into the SDN space. He comes to the conclusion that it is “hard to believe there will be a large number of SDN startups being funded” by VCs.

My objective here is not to challenge Palmer’s conclusion, which seem about right. Instead, I want to examine his assumptions to see whether I can add anything to the discussion.

Slow-Growth Dead Zone

For a long time, VCs have eschewed the networking market. In recent years, Arista Networks emerged as the only new Ethernet-switching vendor to crash the established vendors’ party. Arista, as Palmer points out, was funded by its founders, not by VCs, who generally perceived networking, especially the enterprise variant, as a slow-growth dead zone controlled and dominated by Cisco Systems.

Meanwhile, the VCs had unfortunate experiences in the network-access control (NAC) market, where they sought to make bets in an area that was seen as peripheral to the big vendors’ wheelhouses.

As for SDN today, Palmer thinks most of the major VCs have done their bidding, and he believes Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins will fill out the field shortly. Beyond that, he doesn’t see much action.

Freeze Frame

He comes to that conclusion partly because of Cisco’s longstanding domination of the networking market. Writing that “Cisco learned a long time ago how to freeze markets and make markets look unattractive to competitors and investors,” Palmer believes the networking giant has put “everyone on notice” with its Insieme spin-in venture.  He believes Insieme, and whatever else Cisco does in SDN, will shut the door on SDN startups that aren’t already on the market with credible products and technologies that solve customer problems.

Perhaps VCs, as they have done in the recent past, will refrain from betting against the industry giant. That said, there already has been more VC activity in SDN than we’ve seen in network infrastructure for quite some time. In that respect, SDN demonstrably is different from the networking developments that have preceded it.

It’s different in others ways, too. I know I’ve hammered the same nail repeatedly in the past, but, at the risk of obsessive redundancy, I will do so again: The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) represents a powerful customer-driven dynamic that effectively challenges the vendor-led hegemony that has typified most networking markets and associated standards bodies. The ONF is run by and for service providers. Vendors are excluded from its board of directors, and their contributions are carefully circumscribed to conform with the dictates of the board.

Formidable Power

The catch is that the ONF is all about the needs and requirements of cloud service providers. The enterprise isn’t a primary consideration, though the development of enterprise-market demand for SDN products and technologies could further the strategic interests (economies of scale, innovation, vendor support, etc.) of the service-provider community.

Cisco is a formidable power, but it can’t impose its will on the ONF. In that respect, at least in the service-provider space, SDN is different from preceding network markets, such as Ethernet switching, which were basically incremental advancements in an established market model.

Call me crazy, but I believe that market and financial analysts should begin modeling scenarios in which the growth of SDN cuts into the service-provider revenues and margins of Cisco and Juniper. This will be particularly true in the cloud-service provider (IaaS) space initially, but it is likely to grow into other areas over time.

Enterprise Bulwark

The enterprise? That’s a tougher nut for SDN, for the reason I’ve cited earlier (ONF’s lack of an enterprise mandate), and for others as well. For starters, most enterprises don’t have the resources or the motivation (business case) to move away from networking models and relationships that have served them well.  As SDN evolves over time, that situation could change. For now, though, SDN is more a curiosity for enterprises than something they are considering for wholesale adoption.

Cisco and the other established networking vendors know the enterprise is safer ground for whatever SDN strategy or counterstrategy they present. In this respect, what Palmer terms “Insieme FUD” and other similar tactics are likely to be effective in the near term (the next two years.)

I really can’t quibble with Palmer’s conclusion — as I wrote above, it feels about right — but I think the VC investments we’ve seen heretofore in SDN already suggest that it is perceived differently from the linear networking markets that have preceded it.   I also believe there’s reason to think that SDN will lead to significant disruptions to the provision of networking solutions in the service-provider space.

How far can it go in the enterprise? For now, prospects are murky, but the game is in the early stages, and much will depend on how the SDN ecosystem evolves as well as on how effective Cisco and others are at leveraging the advantages of incumbency.

Putting an ONF Conspiracy Theory to Rest

We know that the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is controlled by the six major service providers that constitute its board of directors.

It is no secret that the ONF is built this way by design. The board members wanted to make sure that they got what they wanted from the ONF’s deliberations, and they felt that existing standards bodies, such as the IETF and IEEE, were gerrymandered and dominated by vendors with self-serving agendas.

The ONF was devised with a different purpose in mind — not to serve the interests of the vendors, but to further the interests of the service-provider community, especially the service providers who sit on the ONF’s board of directors. In their view, conventional networking was a drag on their innovation and business agility, obstructing progress elsewhere in their data centers and IT operations. Whereas compute and storage resources had been virtualized and orchestrated, networking remained a relatively costly and unwieldy fiefdom ruled by “masters of complexity” rummaging manually through an ever-expanding bag of ad-hoc protocols.

Organizing for Clout

Not getting what they desired from their networking vendors, the service providers decided to seize the initiative. Acting on its own,  Google already had done just that, designing and deploying DIY networking gear.

The study of political elites tells us that an organized minority comprising powerful interests can impose its will on a disorganized majority.  In the past, as individual companies, the ONF board members had been unable to counter the agendas of the networking vendors. Together, they hoped to effect the change they desired.

So, we have the ONF, and it’s unlike the IETF and the IEEE in more ways than one. While not a standards body — the ONF describes itself as a “non-profit consortium dedicated to the transformation of networking through the development and standardization of a unique architecture called Software-Defined Networking (SDN)” — there’s no question that the ONF wants to ensure that it defines and delivers SDN according to its own rules  And at its own pace, too, not tied to the product-release schedules of networking vendors.

In certain respects, the ONF is all about consortium of customers taking control and dictating what it wants from the vendor community, which, in this case, should be understood to comprise not only OEM networking vendors, but also ODMs, SDN startups, and purveyors of merchant silicon.

Vehicle of Insurrection?

Just to ensure that its leadership could not be subverted, though, the ONF stipulated that vendors would not be permitted to serve on its board of directors. That means that representatives of Cisco, Juniper, and HP Networking, for example, will never be able to serve on the ONF board.

At least within their self-determined jurisdiction, the ONF’s board members call all the shots. Or do they?

Commenting on my earlier post regarding Cisco’s SDN counterstrategy, a reader, who wished to remain anonymous (Anon4This1), wrote the following:

Regarding this point: “Ultimately, [Cisco] does not control the ONF.”

That was one of the key reasons for the creation of the ONF. That is, there was a sense that existing standards bodies were under the collective thumb of large vendors. ONF was created such that only the ONF board can vote on binding decisions, and no vendors are allowed on the board. Done, right? Ah, well, not so fast. The ONF also has a Technical Advisory Group (TAG). For most decisions, the board actually acts on the recommendations of the TAG. The TAG does not have the same membership restrictions that apply to the ONF board. Indeed, the current chairman of the TAG is none other than influential Cisco honcho, Dave Ward. So if the ONF board listens to the TAG, and the TAG listens to its chairman… Who has more control over the ONF than anyone? https://www.opennetworking.org/about/tag

Board’s Iron Grip

If you follow the link provided by my anonymous commenter, you will find an extensive overview of the ONF’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG). Could the TAG, as constituted, be the tail that wags the ONF dog?

My analysis leads me to a different conclusion.  As I see it, the TAG serves at the pleasure of the ONF board of directors, individually and collectively. Nobody on the TAG does so without the express consent of the board of directors. Moreover, “TAG term appointments are annual and the chair position rotates quarterly.” Whereas Cisco’s Dave Ward serves as the current chair, his term will expire and somebody else will succeed him.

What about the suggestion that the “board actually acts on recommendations of the TAG,” as my commenter asserts. In many instances, that might be true, but the form and substance of the language on the TAG webpage articulates clearly that the TAG is, as its acronym denotes, an advisory body that reports to (and “responds to requests from”) the ONF board of directors.  The TAG offers technical guidance and recommendations, but the board makes the ultimate decisions. If the board doesn’t like what it’s getting from TAG members, annual appointments presumably can be allowed to expire and new members can succeed those who leave.

Currently, two networking-gear OEMs are represented on the ONF’s TAG. Cisco is represented by the aforementioned David Ward, and HP is represented by Jean Tourrilhes, an HP-Labs researcher in Networking and Communication who has worked with OpenFlow since 2008. These gentlemen seem to be on the TAG because those who run the ONF believe they can make meaningful contributions to the development of SDN.

No Coup

It’s instructive to note the company affiliations of the other six members serving on TAG. We find, for instance, Nicira CTO Martin Casado, as well as Verizon’s Dave McDysan, Google’s Amin Vahdat, Microsoft’s Albert Greenberg, Broadcom’s Puneet Agarwal, and Stanford’s Nick McKeown, who also is known as a Nicira co-founder and serves on that company’s board of directors.

If any company has pull, then, on the ONF’s TAG, it would seem to be Nicira Networks, not Cisco Systems. After all, Nicira has two of its corporate directors serving on the ONF’s TAG. Again, though, both gentlemen from Nicira are highly regarded and esteemed SDN proponents, who played critical roles in the advent and development of OpenFlow.

And that’s my point. If you look at who serves on the ONF’s TAG, you can clearly see why they’re in those roles and you can understand why the ONF board members would desire their contributions.

The TAG as a vehicle for an internal coup d’etat at the ONF? That’s one conspiracy theory that I’m definitely not buying.

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.

Debating SDN, OpenFlow, and Cisco as a Software Company

Greg Ferro writes exceptionally well, is technologically knowledgeable, provides incisive commentary, and invariably makes cogent arguments over at EtherealMind.  Having met him, I can also report that he’s a great guy. So, it is with some surprise that I find myself responding critically to his latest blog post on OpenFlow and SDN.

Let’s start with that particular conjunction of terms. Despite occasional suggestions to the contrary, SDN and OpenFlow are not inseparable or interchangeable. OpenFlow is a protocol, a mechanism that allows a server, known in SDN parlance as a controller, to interact with and program flow tables (for packet forwarding) on switches. It facilitates the separation of the control plane from the data plane in some SDN networks.

But OpenFlow is not SDN, which can be achieved with or without OpenFlow.  In fact, Nicira Networks recently announced two SDN customer deployments of its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) — at DreamHost and at Rackspace, respectively — and you won’t find mention of OpenFlow in either press release, though OpenStack and its Quantum networking project receive prominent billing. (I’ll be writing more about the Nicira deployments soon.)

A Protocol in the Big Picture 

My point is not to diminish or disparage OpenFlow, which I think can and will be used gainfully in a number of SDN deployments. My point is that we have to be clear that the bigger picture of SDN is not interchangeable with the lower-level functionality of OpenFlow.

In that respect, Ferro is absolutely correct when he says that software-defined networking, and specifically SDN controller and application software, are “where the money is.” He conflates it with OpenFlow — which may or may not be involved, as we already have established — but his larger point is valid.  SDN, at the controller and above, is where all the big changes to the networking model, and to the industry itself, will occur.

Ferro also likely is correct in his assertion that OpenFlow, in and of itself, will  not enable “a choice of using low cost network equipment instead of the expensive networking equipment that we use today. “ In the near term, at least, I don’t see major prospects for change on that front as long as backward compatibility, interoperability with a bulging bag of networking protocols, and the agendas of the networking old guard are at play.

Cisco as Software Company

However, I think Ferro is wrong when he says that the market-leading vendors in switching and routing, including Cisco and Juniper, are software companies. Before you jump down my throat, presuming that’s what you intend to do, allow me to explain.

As Ferro says, Cisco and Juniper, among others, have placed increasing emphasis on the software features and functionality of their products. I have no objection there. But Ferro pushes his argument too far and suggests that the “networking business today is mostly a software business.”  It’s definitely heading in that direction, but Cisco, for one, isn’t there yet and probably won’t be for some time.  The key word, by the way, is “business.”

Cisco is developing more software these days, and it is placing more emphasis on software features and functionality, but what it overwhelmingly markets and sells to its customers are switches, routers, and other hardware appliances. Yes, those devices contain software, but Cisco sells them as hardware boxes, with box-oriented pricing and box-oriented channel programs, just as it has always done. Nitpickers will note that Cisco also has collaboration and video software, which it actually sells like software, but that remains an exception to the rule.

Talks Like a Hardware Company, Walks Like a Hardware Company

For the most part, in its interactions with its customers and the marketplace in general, Cisco still thinks and acts like a hardware vendor, software proliferation notwithstanding. It might have more software than ever in its products, but Cisco is in the hardware business.

In that respect, Cisco faces the same fundamental challenge that server vendors such as HP, Dell, and — yes — Cisco confront as they address a market that will be radically transformed by the rise of cloud services and ODM-hardware-buying cloud service providers. Can it think, figuratively and literally, outside the box? Just because Cisco develops more software than it did before doesn’t mean the answer is yes, nor does it signify that Cisco has transformed itself into a software vendor.

Let’s look, for example, at Cisco’s approach to SDN. Does anybody really believe that Cisco, with its ongoing attachment to ASIC-based hardware differentiation, will move toward a software-based delivery model that places the primary value on server-based controller software rather than on switches and routers? It’s just not going to happen, because  it’s not what Cisco does or how it operates.

Missing the Signs 

And that bring us to my next objection.  In arguing that Cisco and others have followed the market and provided the software their customers want, Ferro writes the following:

“Billion dollar companies don’t usually miss the obvious and have moved to enhance their software to provide customer value.”

Where to begin? Well, billion-dollar companies frequently have missed the obvious and gotten it horribly wrong, often when at least some individuals within the companies in question knew that their employer was getting it horribly wrong.  That’s partly because past and present successes can sow the seeds of future failure. As in Clayton M. Christensen’s classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, industry leaders can have their vision blinkered by past successes, which prevent them from detecting disruptive innovations. In other cases, former market leaders get complacent or fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a competitive threat until it is too late.

The list of billion-dollar technology companies that have missed the obvious and failed spectacularly, sometimes disappearing into oblivion, is too long to enumerate here, but some  names spring readily to mind. Right at the top (or bottom) of our list of industry ignominy, we find Nortel Networks. Once a company valued at nearly $400 billion, Nortel exists today only in thoroughly digested pieces that were masticated by other companies.

Is Cisco Decline Inevitable?

Today, we see a similarly disconcerting situation unfolding at Research In Motion (RIM), where many within the company saw the threat posed by Apple and by the emerging BYOD phenomenon but failed to do anything about it. Going further back into the annals of computing history, we can adduce examples such as Novell, Digital Equipment Corporation, as well as the raft of other minicomputer vendors who perished from the planet after the rise of the PC and client-sever computing. Some employees within those companies might even have foreseen their firms’ dark fates, but the organizations in which they toiled were unable to rescue themselves.

They were all huge successes, billion-dollar companies, but, in the face of radical shifts in industry and market dynamics, they couldn’t change who and what they were.  The industry graveyard is full of the carcasses of company’s that were once enormously successful.

Am I saying this is what will happen to Cisco in an era of software-defined networking? No, I’m not prepared to make that bet. Cisco should be able to adapt and adjust better than the aforementioned companies were able to do, but it’s not a given. Just because Cisco is dominant in the networking industry today doesn’t mean that it will be dominant forever. As the old investment disclaimer goes, past performance does not guarantee future results. What’s more, Cisco has shown a fallibility of late that was not nearly as apparent in its boom years more than a decade ago.

Early Days, Promising Future

Finally, I’m not sure that Ferro is correct when he says Open Network Foundation’s (ONF) board members and its biggest service providers, including Google, will achieve CapEx but not OpEx savings with SDN. We really don’t know whether these companies are deriving OpEx savings because they’re keeping what they do with their operations and infrastructure highly confidential. Suffice it to say, they see compelling reasons to move away from buying their networking gear from the industry’s leading vendors, and they see similarly compelling reasons to embrace SDN.

Ferro ends his piece with two statements, the first of which I agree with wholeheartedly:

“That is the future of Software Defined Networking – better, dynamic, flexible and business focussed networking. But probably not much cheaper in the long run.”

As for that last statement, I believe there is insufficient evidence on which to render a verdict. As we’ve noted before, these are early days for SDN.