The Politics of OpenFlow

“There’s something happening here, but what is ain’t exactly clear.”  –  Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth.”

Software-defined networking (SDN) and its protocol of choice, OpenFlow, have been in the news for the past couple weeks, and I suspect we’ll have to get used to it. I feel quite comfortable claiming that neither is a fad, and the salient question is not whether they will take off but how far and how fast they will go.

Those, by the way, are good questions. To get answers, I think we first have to understand the technology and its applicability — as many are doing — and we also have to understand who’s behind the SDN curtain, why those particular entities are driving change, and how serious they are about realizing their objectives.

Strange as it might seem, we can benefit from an understanding of the political economics of OpenFlow. By political economy, I refer to the industry politics that are the driving force behind the economics of OpenFlow-based SDNs.

New Industry Dynamics

I’m pondering this subject increasingly because, apologies to Buffalo Springfield, something is happening here that is new and strange. It is happening because the industry — its technologies and markets — is evolving toward new business structures and away from old ones.

I’ll try not to bore you, but let’s briefly set the context. In the old client-server and even in the first wave of the Internet or the Web-based era of distributed computing,  the vendors were in the catbird seats. To varying degrees, everybody — service providers, enterprises, SMBs — looked to them for direction and guidance, not to mention solutions. If the vendors weren’t exactly trusted by their customers, they were needed and valued.

Enterprises Lacked Political Clout

Enterprises come in all shapes and sizes, and they span numerous vertical markets. For that reason, they tend not have overwhelming commonality of interests, and they don’t organize themselves in common cause.  As we have seen, that’s not the case with today’s largest cloud service providers. They are similar to one another in many operational and business respects, they have common interests, and they are working in concert to pursue shared business objectives.

Today we all talk about cloud computing, which has been hyped to death, but one factor that perhaps hasn’t been appreciated fully is that it is a major political change agent for the industry. With cloud computing, power shifts from the vendor community to the service-provider community. As applications and services move to the cloud, market value accompanies them. As Google and Facebook and various other cloud-service providers gain scale, they also gain economic and political power within the industry.

So, what does that mean? Well, it can mean many things, but what it means for the networking industry is that the game is changing, and in ways that must be unnerving to the boards of directors at companies such as Cisco Systems.

Google as Pioneer and Extreme Example

Let’s take Google as an example, albeit an admittedly extreme one. Google tends to make its own technology infrastructure rather than buy it from vendors. It makes it own servers, and it was one of the first service providers (as Andrew Schmitt uncovered a few years ago) to design and build its own switches. As I think about the likely origins of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), the current manifestation of software defined networking, and the development of OpenFlow as a mechanism for realizing the business benefits of SDN, I believe we need to look back to Google’s pioneering efforts to build its own networking infrastructure. In retrospect, that was a watershed moment, and it resulted in what we’re seeing today with SDNs and OpenFlow. It was doubtless motivated by the same business and technology considerations.

To reiterate, as cloud computing rises, technology’s hierarchy of power also changes. As mentioned above, as SMBs and enterprises increasingly move applications to the cloud, where they can be delivered as services by operators such as Google and others of its ilk, two things happen: enterprise-oriented vendors find potentially themselves with a smaller market to serve, and the cloud-service providers begin to assert themselves in a number of ways, which includes setting the technology agenda for the industry.

The Open Network Foundation (ONF), for example, is run by and for service-provider community. Networking vendors do not control or drive that organization, and they never will. It is controlled by the six founding members, and they’re all major service providers. Make no mistake, the organization was constructed that way for a reason, with a clear purpose in mind. Those who politically control an organization necessarily set its agenda. The agenda of the ONF, and certainly the development of OpenFlow, is skewed definitively toward their interests. At this point, the ONF’s conception of software-defined networking is not concerned with enterprise needs or requirements. It might get there some day. I know the investors behind Big Switch Networks are hoping it does. But it’s not there now.

Inexorable Cloud Drivers 

I said earlier that Google, in this context, was an extreme example of a service provider. Not every cloud purveyor will design and deliver its own switches, and few and far between would try to tackle the challenge of core routing, as Google seems to be doing now. Still, Google and others behind the ONF have evinced enlightened self-interest. They know that the more they can move the world toward a model of highly efficient and effective cloud-based IT infrastructure (servers, storage, networking), predicated on bare-bones industry-standard hardware and orchestrated by an application-driven software-management layer, the more they will drive down their cost of production and operation. As that is achieved, they won’t just lower their own cost structures, but they will hasten the shift of consumer and enterprise applications and services to the public cloud. It’s a matter of scale, cost, and market dynamics.

NTT sees it, so do all the others. Even those who haven’t joined the Open Networking Foundation, such as Rackspace, are seeking to leverage OpenFlow.

It’s not that these service providers dislike Cisco or Juniper. As I said before, it’s just business. What Cisco and Juniper do, how they work and what they do, might have sufficed before, but it that is not an optimal model for these service providers now — or in the future.

I’m not a stock-market prognosticator, but I realize this scenario has implications for investors in networking companies. Some vendors are more exposed than others to this shift and to these developments. I will deal with those companies and their changed circumstances in subsequent posts. I don’t want to muddy the waters by delving into company-specific fortunes at this time. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason why Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems, both of which have significant exposure to the service-provider community, are scrambling to get on the OpenFlow bandwagon. It’s better to part of this parade than to be left behind, and maintaining a presence in major service-provider accounts is better than having no presence at all.

Nobody Dies, but Some Get Hurt 

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that the enterprise is a big networking market — still the biggest of all — and that the cloud and its technological agenda won’t vaporize that market overnight. Nobody is going to get “killed” or fatally disabled in the next few months, or even probably in the next few years. (I hate that “killer” talk people throw around on the Interwebs. It’s hype, and it doesn’t advance any sort of meaningful discourse or understanding at all.)

For that reason, I think it’s entirely relevant to discuss the current shortcomings of OpenFlow-based SDNs for enterprise networks. Along those lines, Ethan Banks offered some cogent thoughts yesterday on the topic after taking in the Open Flow Symposium.

As for me, I see what the progenitors of the ONF are trying to achieve. I understand why they are doing it, and I think it’s a big deal in a number of respects. As we move increasingly to the cloud, the major service providers, as represented by the demographics of the ONF board members, are moving to the fore, asserting their growing power.

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