Open SDN: A Crossroad for IT Vendors and the Enterprise

Despite all the talk about SDN representing a new era in enterprise networking, executives dipping their first toe in the waters are faced with an age-old question: do I go with an open or proprietary solution?

This is not as stark a choice as it once was, since proprietary platforms and leading open SDN solutions offer APIs to enable broad interoperability, but there are still trade-offs between running advanced network architectures entirely on white box commodity hardware and the specialized systems from top vendors.

Increasingly, though, top proprietary vendors are coming to the conclusion that existing business models featuring high-cost integrated platforms will become less attractive as SDN takes hold, particularly once the enterprise realizes that it gains much more flexibility and scalability by developing networks in software than in hardware.

A case in point is Brocade. CEO Lloyd Carney told Datacenter Knowledge’s Yevgeniy Sverdlik flat out that he believes commodity x86 servers are destined to take over both the compute and the networking functions in the data center and that high-priced proprietary systems are on the way out. This is why Brocade has been investing so heavily in software of late. Carney says this will increase the company’s share of the enterprise networking market, even as the overall size of that market shrinks due to the sunset of dedicated networking platforms.

For a dominant player like Cisco, however, things are a little trickier. New CEO Chuck Robbins has yet to articulate a strategic vision going forward, but if he preserves anything from his years working under John Chambers, it seems that hardware will remain in lockstep with software defined architectures. According to Fortune, Chambers was defiant at the last earnings call, saying that “All this garbage about new players coming in, and software coming in, and white label killing our approach was entirely wrong.” Word on the street, though, is that following last year’s 20 percent decline in earnings, the company is starting to focus on software development and is investing in cloud-facing startups like Piston Cloud.

For the enterprise executive then, is there any guarantee that after all the investment in SDN is said and done, they won’t simply wind up with a proprietary software architecture in place of their proprietary hardware setup? According to Charles Ferland, Nuage Networks Vice President of Business Development, even within fully open platforms like OpenStack, individual vendors will bring unique feature sets to the table, but as long they conform to the standard commands and plug-ins, they should all work together under a common orchestration framework. So just as you want to avoid virtual solutions that restrict the use of certain hypervisors, you’ll want to avoid SDN components that do not conform to the management stack you’ve chosen.

What you will have to do, however, is shift your network management capabilities and skillsets from today’s systems-facing approach to dev/ops, says tech analyst Lee Doyle. Under a software paradigm, networking ceases to be an independent entity, on top of which applications are layered, and instead becomes an embedded portion of the application code. To achieve this, applications and services will be devised through cross-functional teams that may include everyone from the app developer to compute, storage and networking specialists, data analysts, and, finally, even the application user, who will define its basic function and the role it is to play in the business process. By virtue of necessity, this is likely to be most effective on open platforms, as these should enable the broadest flexibility when it comes to carrying applications across distributed cloud infrastructure.

But even if the enterprise does pursue a proprietary SDN strategy, it should still provide all the functionality that a more open solution provides, albeit perhaps with not as many options. The upshot is that integration and deployment should be easier, and if something goes wrong there is one number to call.

As with virtually everything in the enterprise, the type of SDN you hope to deploy will depend on how much you are willing to take on yourself and how much you can outsource to others.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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