Strategic Logic in Juniper’s 3-2-1 Pitch

Earlier this week, Juniper Networks unveiled new switches, routers, software, and services, all of which were positioned as helping enterprises adapt their network infrastructure to increasingly virtualized application requirements. In Juniper’s worldview, that adaptation involves an evolutionary transition from relatively complex, three-layer networks to simpler, flatter, single-layer networks.

Junper calls it the 3-2-1 progression in network architecture.

The company isn’t quite ready to flip the switch to activate the one-layer network, but it’s moving its product strategy, channel partners, and customers in that direction. The marketing message benefits from clarity, not always a given among networking companies, and the vision is compelling. Juniper now faces the daunting challenge of execution in bringing its Project Status to fruition.

What is Project Status? Here’s David Yen, Juniper’s data-center strategist, discussing it:
Project Stratus is the ultimate simplification, trying to collapse all of the layers of Ethernet switching effectively down to one. So the data center fabric essentially becomes a gigantic logical single switch. You must have the playing field flat in the hierarchy, then you can really maximize the kind of automation to do the job. The other major direction that Juniper is working on is the application of automation. The foundational platform we launched in Juniper Space was designed to serve as the platform with appropriate database and appropriate Web application servers built in; and yes, it has a publicly supported BPI so both Juniper’s module and third-party modules can be plugged in to apply various policies and automation that customers desire. A few modules we started releasing are to help the customers monitor the data center network to help them quickly set up MPLS-type networking protocols.
Where does Juniper stand today on the road to Stratus? Light Reading’s Craig Matsumoto writes:
Stratus is a combination of products Juniper is developing with IBM Corp. The plan is to collapse the three-tiered data-center architecture (access, aggregation, and core) into one layer, by networking to view the entire data center as a single switch.
For now, Juniper claims it can merge the aggregation and core layers, creating a two-tiered data center, by using the virtual chassis capabilities of its EX line — that is, by linking switches together into a multichassis box.

So, we’re at the “2” in Juniper’s  “3-2-1” data-center progression, having subsumed aggregation into the network core. Nonetheless, Project Stratus, first mentioned more than a year ago, appears to be at least a year away from commercial exposure.

In some ways, Project Stratus appears to be Juniper’s Xanadu. Maybe that’s not fair, because Juniper says it’s a genuine destination, that it can be found on the product and strategy roadmaps, and that we’ll arrive there soon enough. What was announced earlier this week — in the form of routers, 10-GbE switches, and software and services — was an intermediate step on the journey. In and of themselves, according to Juniper, those new products and services will help customers flatten their network fabrics to improve performance and decrease costs.

These products offer qualitative benefits to customers, and Juniper is working hard to quantity the savings and value the new offerings deliver.

On the software front, Juniper has introduced four JUNOS Space applications: Virtual Control, Ethernet Design, Security Design and Services Insight.

Virtual Control facilitates integration with VMware to manage physical and virtual systems from a common orchestration platform; Ethernet Design and Security Design support allow for configuration and deployment of data-center networks and attendant security policies; and Service Insight is intended to enable proactive detection, diagnosis, and resolution of network problems.

From a strategic standpoint, Juniper’s JUNOS software, including these new offerings, is meant to imbue network plumbing with automated intelligence, thus transforming it into something other than network plumbing. Juniper wants to orchestrate what and where it can, not only to provide more value to customers and to compete more effectively against Cisco and HP/3Com, but also because it needs to keep its server and storage partners (IBM and Dell foremost among them) from gravitating toward dumber, commodity-oriented network plumbing.

Along similar lines, Juniper announced new software for its SRX Series Services, providing IT managers visibility into application and data flows that are being reconfigured by virtualization and cloud computing.

Regardless of why Juniper is shifting the focus from speeds-and-feeds hardware performance to software-based network-management automation, the company is doing the right thing. The race for hardware bragging rights is a confusing and tiresome game of leapfrog that ends in Pyrrhic victory. It’s really a race without end that produces evanescent differentiation and relentless commoditization.

Many customers end up fixating on the wrong things, buying gear for the wrong reasons.

Surely somebody in this industry remembers what happened to the technical-workstation market. At one point, all the vendors thought it was about brutish hardware performance, but what mattered to customers were applications. (And, of course, that same script has been followed in the smartphone market.)

Just as we discovered that the value of the workstation or the smartphone was inextricably linked to and commensurate with the applications the devices could run, we’re finding now that the value of network infrastructure is similarly twinned to the increasingly virtualized and cloud-migrating applications that they support. Port density and raw performance aren’t unimportant considerations, but they aren’t what will redefine value or establish a new pecking order in the network-vendor firmament.

I think Juniper understands that. HP probably does, too, but it’s playing a different game. I could be wrong, but I think many within HP want the network to get cheaper and faster, but not necessarily smarter. HP, especially now that it owns 3Com, wants to commoditize the network. Intelligence, management, and orchestration are necessary in the data center — providing support virtualization and cloud services — but HP, I suspect, wants the network to play a relatively modest role in the endeavor, at least for the time being. In networking, HP will lead with price and seek to bash its competitors’ margins in a war of attrition.

Understandably, that’s not a game Juniper or Cisco wants to play. What’s important for Juniper is not what HP thinks, not even what Cisco thinks, but what its customers and partners think. To the extent that Juniper can satisfy customers, it ill retain the loyalties its channel and OEM partners.

The whole 3-2-1 message, and Juniper’s march toward Project Status, makes sense. It’s surprisingly consistent and lucid for a company that came of age in the carrier space and was noted, at least until recently, for hard-core network-engineering esoterica.

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