Sizing Up the SDN Field

Like a chess match, the market for software defined networking (SDN) is quickly filling up with pieces. The only question now is whether the major players have the right strategy to win the game, or will it be a draw.

The latest move came from Brocade this week with the purchase of Vyatta, an SDN development firm specializing in multi-application virtualization technology and cloud-based platforms. The company was privately owned, although it did have venture backing from Citrix.

The deal gives Brocade a means to implement SDN across either physical or cloud architectures as part of the company’s networking fabric portfolio, pushing network intelligence and management all the way to the hypervisor. This should give end-users the ability to establish the necessary network environment for a given application regardless of where the hypervisor resides or what resources are required. The company will become part of Brocade’s Routing, Application Deliver and Software Networking unit.

This comes on the heels of other high-profile buy-outs in the SDN sector. VMware kicked things off over the summer with the purchase of Nicira, developer of the OpenFlow system and an early supporter of the Open vSwitch project designed to connect physical networks with virtual environments. With VMware’s extensive portfolio of server virtualization technologies, including vSphere and vCloud Director, plus storage support from parent company EMC, VMware is in a unique position to create a soup-to-nuts virtual environment in which all aspects of the data experience exist on a fully abstracted logical plane.

Such a scenario may appeal to some, but others maintain that some linkage between hardware and software is needed to produce optimal data performance. Chief among them is Cisco, which is looking to leverage its broad array of switches, routers and other network devices with SDN technologies like vCider. Cisco purchased vCider last month with an eye toward folding its network overlay platform into the Open Network Environment (ONE) system. The plan is to go a step further than simple SDN by adding a range of programming and customization features that can be tailored to different deployments.

In every game, however, there is the possibility of a late entry. In this case, that would be Japan’s Midokura, which recently announced its intention to enter the U.S. market with its MidoNet platform. Unlike most of the other SDN systems, MidoNet is not based on OpenFlow. Rather, it uses a proprietary approach that is deployed on the network edge and in the aggregation router, creating a virtual network overlay to carve out data pathways across physical infrastructure. The company says this provides broader flexibility to enable L2 and L3 services like load balancing and firewall implementation. The system has been integrated into the CloudStack program, an indication that the company is primarily targeting the cloud community.

One of the more interesting aspects of all this activity is that, even though we are talking about major changes to IT infrastructure, the names HP, IBM and Dell are rarely mentioned in SDN conversations. All three have expressed support for SDN in one form or another, but for the most part, VMware and Cisco are the driving forces in this phase of virtualization.

This isn’t to say that traditional data platform providers have lost clout with customers. Rather, it’s a sign that resources like servers and storage are no long the primary focus of long-term purchasing plans. With the cloud providing both processing power and data capacity in abundance, real performance has become a function of how well the enterprise can move data to and from the cloud.

And to do that, the enterprise needs the most advanced network it can get.

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