Open vs. Proprietary SDN: New Technologies, Same Old Dilemmas

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s an old saying, and rather trite, but it is becoming increasingly appropriate as data center infrastructure makes the transition from a hardware- to a software-centric footing.

Cisco, Juniper, HP, and the open vs. proprietary SDN battle

A case in point is the issue of open vs. proprietary software defined networking (SDN). Vendors like Cisco and Juniper tout a tight integration between their hardware and software layers in order to drive greater functionality and higher efficiency within the overall networking environments. Both companies participate in open source initiatives like OpenFlow and OpenDaylight, but they nevertheless argue that a more optimized virtual networking infrastructure can be had by layering SDN atop their respective hardware platforms.

Now, it seems Cisco and Juniper are being one-upped by HP. At this week’s HP Discover event, the company not only unveiled a new FlexFabric 7900 switch and Virtual Cloud Networking software solution for its SDN portfolio but has also forged new ties with its Helion cloud platform, which itself is based largely on OpenStack. The message here is, if it makes sense to go the single-vendor route on the network, why not then pursue the same strategy across the entire cloud? Despite its recent troubles in the PC and enterprise hardware markets, the fact remains that HP still has the broadest portfolio when it comes to building top-to-bottom, end-to-end data solutions.

This includes not just the new cloud and SDN products, but systems ranging from the 3PAR StoreServ line and the Project Moonshot and ConvergedSystem modular platforms to new service-based products like the Datacenter Care Flexible Capacity and Trusted Network Transformation offerings, designed to help the enterprise manage its load/capacity requirements without breaking the bank. And HP is not shy about highlighting its still-considerable datacenter prowess even against powerhouse vendors like Cisco.

Forces driving open source cloud and SDN

So why wouldn’t someone want to align with a full-service vendor rather than putting together piecemeal server, storage and networking infrastructure, particularly now that we are talking about highly complex virtual and software-defined architectures? Because even though things are different now, they remain the same when it comes to issues like vendor lock-in. And as the cloud starts to play a larger, and likely dominant, role in enterprise data operations, the need to interact across multi-vendor environments will become crucial, particularly on the network level. This is why groups like the Open Networking Foundation place such a high premium on defining not just the network protocols that carry data from link to link, but the interfaces that oversee the points of connection between devices, says ONF Executive Director Dan Pitt.

Initiatives like OpenFlow and OpenStack bring another element to the SDN equation: the long-haul carrier link. Companies ranging from Alcatel-Lucent to ConteXtreme to Ciena Corp. are all working toward open SDN infrastructure, which should make it easier for the enterprise to craft contiguous, interoperable data environments across disparate geographic regions. Of course, companies like VMware, Cisco and Juniper have carrier products as well, and as I mentioned are all involved in the various open SDN initiatives, but the pure-carrier players do not have a vested interest in maintaining legacy data center infrastructure and are therefore more likely to provide broad compatibility with as many enterprise platforms as possible.

None of this should imply that the enterprise faces a stark choice between open or proprietary platforms when it comes to building the virtual data center. Indeed, there may be many instances when going with an all-Cisco or all-HP solution is warranted for key infrastructure, with the knowledge that each of these platforms has ties to the broader open community.

And just like in the old days, IT will have to oversee the integration process, no matter which options the front office chooses to deploy.

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