Initially, I intended not to comment on the Wired article on Nicira Networks. While it contained some interesting quotes and a few good observations, its tone and too much of its focus were misplaced. It was too breathless, trying to too hard to make the story fit into a simplistic, sensationalized narrative of outsized personalities and the threatened “irrelevance” of Cisco Systems.
There was not enough focus on how Nicira’s approach to network virtualization and its particular conception of software defined networking (SDN) might open new horizons and enable new possibilities to the humble network. On his blog, Plexxi’s William Koss, commenting not about the Wired article but about reaction to SDN from the industry in general, wrote the following:
In my view, SDN is not a tipping point. SDN is not obsoleting anyone. SDN is a starting point for a new network. It is an opportunity to ask if I threw all the crap in my network in the trash and started over what would we build, how would we architect the network and how would it work? Is there a better way?
Cisco Still There
I think that’s a healthy focus. As Koss writes, and I agree, Cisco isn’t going anywhere; the networking giant will be with us for some time, tending its considerable franchise and moving incrementally forward. It will react more than it “proacts” — yes, I apologize now for the Haigian neologism — but that’s the fate of any industry giant of a certain age, Apple excepted.
Might Cisco, more than a decade from now, be rendered irrelevant? I, for one, don’t make predictions over such vast swathes of time. Looking that far ahead and attempting to forecast outcomes is a mug’s game. It is nothing but conjecture disguised as foresight, offered by somebody who wants to flash alleged powers of prognostication while knowing full well that nobody else will remember the prediction a month from now, much less years into the future.
As far out as we can see, Cisco will be there. So, we’ll leave ambiguous prophecies to the likes of Nostradamus, whom I believe forecast the deaths of OS/2, Token Ring, and desktop ATM.
Answers are Coming
Fortunately, I think we’re beginning to get answers as to where and how Nicira’s approaches to network virtualization and SDN can deliver value and open new possibilities. The company has been making news with customer testimonials that include background on how its technology has been deployed. (Interestingly, the company has issued just three press releases in 2012, and all of them deal with customer deployments of its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP).)
There’s a striking contrast between the moderation implicit in Nicira’s choice of press releases and the unchecked grandiosity of the Wired story. Then again, I understand that vendors have little control over what journalists (and bloggers) write about them.
That said, one particular quote in the Wired article provoked some thinking from this quarter. I had thought about the subject previously, but the following excerpt provided some extra grist for my wood-burning mental mill:
In virtualizing the network, Nicira lets you make such changes in software, without touching the underlying hardware gear. “What Nicira has done is take the intelligence that sits inside switches and routers and moved that up into software so that the switches don’t need to know much,” says John Engates, the chief technology officer of Rackspace, which has been working with Nicira since 2009 and is now using the Nicira platform to help drive a new beta version of its cloud service. “They’ve put the power in the hands of the cloud architect rather than the network architect.”
Who Controls the Network?
It’s the last sentence that really signifies a major break with how things have been done until now, and this is where the physical separation of the control plane from the switch has potentially major implications. As Scott Shenker has noted, network architects and network professionals have made their bones by serving as “masters of complexity,” using relatively arcane knowledge of proprietary and industry-standard protocols to keep networks functioning amid increasing demands of virtualized compute and storage infrastructure.
SDN promises an easier way, one that potentially offers a faster, simpler, less costly approach to network operations. It also offers the creative possibility of unleashing new applications and new ways of optimizing data-center resources. In sum, it can amount to a compelling business case, though not everywhere, at least not yet.
Where it does make sense, however, cloud architects and the devops crowd will gain primacy and control over the network. This trend is reflected already in the press releases from Nicira. Notice that customer quotes from Nicira do not come from network architects, network engineers, or anybody associated with conventional approaches to running a network. Instead, we see encomiums to NVP offered by cloud-architects, cloud-architect executives, and VPs of software development.
Similarly, and not surprisingly, Nicira typically doesn’t sell NVP to the traditional networking professional. It goes to the same “cloudy” types to whom quotes are attributed in its press releases. It’s true, too, that Nicira’s SDN business case and value proposition play better at cloud service providers than at enterprises.
Potentially a Big Deal
This is an area where I think the advent of the programmable server-based controller is a big deal. It changes the customer power dynamic, putting the cloud architects and the programmers in the driver’s seat, effectively placing the network under their control. (Jason Edelman has begun thinking about what the rise of SDN means for the network engineer.) In this model, the network eventually gets subsumed under the broader rubric of computing and becomes just another flexible piece of cloud infrastructure.
Nicira can take this approach because it has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Of course, the same holds true of other startup vendors espousing SDN.
Perhaps that’s why Koss closed his latest post by writing that “the architects, the revolutionaries, the entrepreneurs, the leaders of the next twenty years of networking are not working at the incumbents.” The word “revolutionaries” seems too strong, and the incumbents will argue that Koss, a VP at startup Plexxi, isn’t an unbiased party.
They’re right, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.