Closely following the latest developments and continuing progress of software-defined networking (SDN), I am reminded of what somebody who shall remain nameless said not long ago about why he chose to leave Cisco to pursue his career elsewhere.
He basically said that Cisco, as a huge networking company, is having trouble reconciling itself to the reality that the growing force known as cloud computing is not “network centric.” His words stuck with me, and I’ve been giving them a lot of thought since then.
All Computing Now
His opinion was validated earlier this week at a NetEvents symposium in Garmisch, Germany, where Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) made some statements about software-defined networking (SDN) that, while entirely consistent with what we’ve heard before from that community’s most fervent proponents, also seemed surprisingly provocative. Quoting Pitt, from a blog post published at ZDNet UK:
“In future, networking will become just an integral part of computing, using same tools as the rest of computing. Enterprises will get out of managing plumbing, operators will become software companies, IT will add more business value, and there will be more network startups from Generation Y.”
Pitt was asked what impact this architectural shift would have on network performance. He said that a 30,000-user campus could be supported by a four-year-old Dell PC.
Redefining Architecture, Redefining Value
Naturally, networking vendors can’t be elated at that prospect. Under the SDN master plan, the intelligence (and hence the value) of switching and routing gets moved to a server, or to a cluster of servers, on the edge of the network. Whether this is done with OpenFlow, Open vSwitch, or some other mechanism between the control plane and the switch doesn’t really matter in the big picture. What matters is that networking architectures will be redefined, and networking value will migrate into (and be subsumed within) a computing paradigm. Not to put too fine a point on it, but networking value will be inherent in applications and control-plane software, not in the dumb, physical hardware that will be relegated to shunting packets on the network.
At that same NetEvents symposium in Germany, a Computerworld UK story quoted Pitt saying something very similar to, though perhaps less eloquent than, what Berkeley professor and Nicira co-founder Scott Shenker said about network-protocol complexity.
“There are lots of networking protocols which make it very labour intensive to manage a network. There are too many “band aids” being used to keep a network working, and these band aids can actually cause many of the problems elsewhere in the network.”
Politics of ONF
I’ve written previously about the political dynamics of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF).
Just to recap, if you look at the composition of the board of directors at the ONF, you’ll know all you need to know about who wields power in that organization. The ONF board members are Google, Yahoo, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, NTT, and Microsoft. Make no mistake about Microsoft’s presence. It is there as a cloud service provider, not as a vendor of technology products.
The ONF is run by large cloud service providers, and it’s run for large cloud service providers, though it’s conceivable that much of what gets done in the ONF will have applicability and value to cloud shops of smaller size and stature. I suppose it’s also conceivable that some of the ONF’s works will prove valuable at some point to large enterprises, though it should be noted that the enterprise isn’t a constituency that is foremost of mind to the ONF.
Vendors Not Driving
One thing is certain: Networking vendors are not steering the ONF ship. I’ve written that before, and I’ll no doubt write it again. In fact, I’ll quote Dan Pit to that effect right now:
“No vendors are allowed on the (ONF) board. Only the board can found a working group, approve standards, and appoint chairs of working groups. Vendors can be on the groups but not chair them. So users are in the driving seat.”
And those users — really the largest of the cloud service providers — aren’t about to move over. In fact, the power elite that governs that ONF has a definite vision in mind for the future of networking, a future that — as we’ve already seen — will make the networking subservient to applications, programmability, and computing.
Transition on the Horizon
As the SDN vision moves downstream from the largest service providers, such as those who run the show at the ONF, to smaller service providers and then to large enterprises, networking companies will have to transform themselves into software vendors — with software business models.
Can they do that? Some of them probably can, but others — including probably the largest of all — will have a difficult time making the transition, a prisoner of its own past success and circumscribed by the classic “innovator’s dilemma.” Cisco, a networking colossus, has built a thriving franchise and dominant market position, replete with a full-fledged business model and an enormous sales machine. It will be hard to move away from a formula that’s filled the coffers all these years.
Still, move they must, though timing, as it often does, will count for a lot. The SDN wave won’t inundate the marketplace overnight, but, regardless of the underlying protocols and mechanisms that might run alongside or supersede OpenFlow, SDN seems set to eventually win adherents in CFO and CIO offices beyond the realm of the companies represented on the ONF’s board of directors. It will take some time, probably many years, but it’s a movement that will gain followers and momentum as it delivers quantifiable business benefits to those that adopt it.
Enterprise As Last Redoubt
The enterprise will be the last redoubt of conventional networking infrastructure, and it’s not difficult to envision Cisco doing everything in its power to keep it that way for as long as possible. Expect networking’s old guard to strongly resist the siren song of SDN. That’s only natural, even if — in the very long haul — it seems a vain pursuit and, ultimately, a losing battle.
At this point, I just want to emphasizes that SDN need not lead to the commoditization of networking. Granted, it might lead to the commoditization of certain types of networking hardware, but there’s still value, much of it proprietary, that software-centric networking vendors can bring to the SDN table. But, as I said earlier, for many vendors that will mean a shift in business model, product focus, and go-to-market strategy.
In that Computerworld piece, some wonder whether networking vendors could prevent the rise of software-defined networking by refusing to play along.
Not Going Away
Again, I can easily imagine the vendors slowing and impeding the ascent of SDN within enterprises, but there’s absolutely no way for them to forestall its adoption at the major service providers represented by the ONF board members. Those players have the capital and the operational resources, to say nothing of the business motivation, to roll their own switches, perhaps with the help of ODMs, and to program their own applications and networks. That train has left the station and it can’t be recalled by even the largest of networking vendors, who really have no leverage or say in the matter. They can play along and try to find a sinecure where they can continue to add value, or they can dig in their heels and get circumvented entirely. It’s their choice.
Either way, the tension between the ONF and the traditional networking vendors is palpable. In the IETF, the vendors are casting glances and sometimes aspersions at the ONF, trying to figure out how they can mount a counterattack. The battle will be joined, but the ONF rules its own roost — and it isn’t going away.