PLUMgrid Plans to Take Over the World

SDN startup's CTO talks SDN, OpenDaylight, the commoditization mistake, and avoiding the managed services trap.

By Jude Chao | Posted Aug 29, 2013
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By now, it hardly bears repeating that real-world, enterprise SDN deployments will take some time to catch up to the expectations built up by industry hype. Ultimately, enterprise adoption of any new technology depends not on how cool or hot or sexy the technology is, but on what business problems it can solve. SDN startup PLUMgrid believes their PLUMgrid Platform's overlay approach solves some of those critical business problems while avoiding others.

While at VMworld, I spoke about those problems with PLUMgrid co-founder and CTO Pere Monclus. Formerly an R&D engineer at Cisco, where he led the vendor's Service Enabled Network initiative and played a key role in other early SDN development, Monclus told me that many vendors are taking the wrong approach to SDN.

The commoditization approach is a mistake

To some, SDN represents a way to commoditize the physical network. This model started with OpenFlow, Monclus said, and promised to allow organizations to replace pricey proprietary hardware with whiteboxed gear. This approach "isn't getting any traction, and companies are proving that that's not the right way to approach the market," he told me.

The reason for that boils down to trust. The health of enterprises' networks grows ever more crucial to their operations. If an enterprise has been using Cisco gear for years, it becomes extremely difficult to convince decision-makers to "get rid of Cisco, drop this trusted name, and put in this other switch that is cheaper just to save twenty percent," Monclus said. Saving a few bucks in CapEx isn't worth the risk to many companies. He conceded, "There are companies doing that, and if it works, good for them. But we have a different way of looking at networking."

PLUMgrid's overlay approach

Instead of attempting to convince customers to drop the brands they've trusted for years, PLUMgrid offers a way of entering either a brownfield or a greenfield environment, installing software at the hypervisor, and deploying centralized management to create virtual environments "without manipulating or disrupting the physical network," Monclus said. Virtual network infrastructure demands like tenant isolation should not happen in the physical world, he insisted.

"Our point is, let the customer pick whatever fabric he feels comfortable with, and then solve the problems of turning a traditional data center into a cloud-ready, virtual data center. Our product creates these virtual data centers and defines what kind of networking environment we want without having to change a configuration of the fabric," Monclus said.

SDN adoption: Drivers and challenges

What's driving interest in PLUMgrid's solution and SDN in general? Cloud automation is one, PLUMgrid Senior Director of Marketing Thomas McCafferty told me. Cloud and virtualization deployments create issues that would be difficult – and expensive – to solve without the kind of automation and orchestration SDN can offer. From provisioning to policy to configuration, mistakes can bring down the whole network and all the applications it delivers. Network lag damages the bottom line, too. And now that "there are more virtual switch ports than there are physical," McCafferty said, the need for automation has become a major driver of interest.

Effective automation goes hand in hand with integration within the software defined network. The network is an ecosystem, after all. Customers want tight integration of the virtual network infrastructure with the physical fabric, according to Monclus. He said, "If you have a customer that wants to create a private cloud environment for their enterprise, now you have to deal with two or three vendors for your solution. The challenge is how to establish this ecosystem that you can go into and make work without getting into the managed services business, which nobody wants to get into."

Open standards and OpenDaylight

Open standards may be key to solving these challenges. PLUMgrid is a Silver Member of the OpenDaylight open source project and believes that open standards, whether developed by OpenDaylight or some other group, will greatly benefit the space, as well as PLUMgrid's own solution. 

OpenDaylight isn't the end-all and be-all, though. Individual vendors are building their own fabric controllers, so "it's not that we depend on OpenDaylight for that to happen," Monclus said. But if OpenDaylight becomes "the controller of controllers," as he put it, integration with the physical network fabric will become much easier.

VMworld and what's next

PLUMgrid is at VMworld to demo their work with partner companies. They showed insertion of partner technologies into the PLUMgrid Platform with F5 and Checkpoint, and over at the Ixia booth, the vendor also demoed a full dev test environment that used Ixia to monitor applications' availability.

Eight weeks after the PLUMgrid Platform launch, plenty of work remains for the company. Monclus and McCafferty sound optimistic about the future. I asked them what's next.

"Conquer the world," both said.

ENP editor Jude Chao Jude Chao is executive editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.

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