While recent discussions of software-defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization have focused nearly exclusively on the OpenFlow protocol, various parties are making the point that OpenFlow is just one facet of a bigger story.
One of those parties is Nicira Networks, which was treated to favorable coverage in the New York Times earlier today. In the article, the words “software-defined networking” and “OpenFlow” are conspicuous by their absence. Sure, the big-picture concept of software-defined networking hovers over proceedings, but Nicira takes pains to position itself as a purveyor of “network virtualization,” which is a neater, simpler concept for the broader technology market to grasp.
VMware of Networking
Indeed, leveraging the idea of network virtualization, Nicira positions itself as the VMware of networking, contending that it will resolve the problem of inflexible, inefficient, complex, and costly data-center networks with a network hypervisor that decouples network services from the underlying hardware. Nicira’s goal, then, is to be the first vendor to bring network virtualization up to speed with server and storage virtualization.
GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham takes issue with the New York Times article and with Nicira’s claims relating to its putatively peerless place in the networking firmament. Writes Higginbotham:
“The article . . . . does a disservice to the companies pursing network virtualization by conflating the idea of flexible and programmable networks with Nicira becoming “to networking something like what VMWare was to computer servers.” This is a nice trick for the lay audience, but unlike server virtualization, which VMware did pioneer and then control, network virtualization currently has a variety of vendors pushing solutions that range from being tied to the hardware layer (hello, Juniper and Xsigo) to the software (Embrane and Nicira). In addition to there being multiple companies pushing their own standards, there’s an open source effort to set the building blocks and standards in place to create virtualized networks.”
The ONF Factor
The open-source effort in question is the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which is promulgating OpenFlow as the protocol by which software-defined networking will be attained. I have written about OpenFlow and the ONF previously, and will have more to say on both shortly. Recently, I also recounted HP’s position on OpenFlow.
Nicira says nothing about OpenFlow, which suggests the company is playing down the protocol or might be going in a different direction to realize its vision of network virtualization. As has been noted, there’s more than one road to software-defined networking, even though OpenFlow is a path that has been well traveled thus far by industry notables, including six major service providers that are the ONF’s founding board members (Google, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo.)
Then again, you will find Nicira Networks among the ONF’s membership, along with a number of other established and nascent networking vendors. Nicira sees a role for OpenFlow, then, though it clearly wants to put the emphasis on its own software and the applications and services that it enables. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a perfectly sensible strategy for a vendor to pursue.
Tension Between Vendors and Service Providers
Alan S. Cohen, a recent addition to the Nicira team, put it into pithy perspective on his personal blog, where he wrote about why he joined Nicira and why the network will be virtualized. Wrote Cohen:
“Virtualization and the cloud is the most profound change in information technology since client-server and the web overtook mainframes and mini computers. We believe the full promise of virtualization and the cloud can only be fully realized when the network enables rather than hinders this movement. That is why it needs to be virtualized.
Oh, by the way, OpenFlow is a really small part of the story. If people think the big shift in networking is simply about OpenFlow, well, they don’t get it.”
So, the big service providers might see OpenFlow as a nifty mechanism that will allow them to reduce their capital expenditures on high-margin networking gear while also lowering their operational expenditures on network management, but the networking vendors — neophytes and veterans alike — still seek and need to provide value (and derive commensurate margins) above and beyond OpenFlow’s parameters.