Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-06-19

Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

In a recent survey by Cisco Systems, 71 percent of the IT professionals who responded said they plan to deploy software-defined networking technology this year for a variety of reasons, from creating more programmable networks to reducing costs.

In the same survey, 34 percent said that thus far, they had seen an actual deployment of SDN technology as often as they've seen Elvis, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

That about sums up what's going on right now in the high-profile software-defined networking market, a space that has garnered a massive amount of attention and interest from vendors, analysts and businesses, but has seen relatively little in the way of actual implementation and deployment.

Like virtualization and cloud before it, "SDN" is getting attached to a lot of vendor products and initiatives—what Jason Matlof, vice president of marketing at SDN startup Big Switch Networks, calls "SDN washing." Now established tech companies and startups alike are maneuvering to set themselves up as the go-to SDN vendor.

But at this point, outside of big Web 2.0 companies and cloud providers such as Amazon and Google, which are always looking for new technologies to drive down costs in the their massive data centers, there are a few instances of businesses using SDN in production settings, though Cisco and other large vendors talk about dozens of customers testing products.

Speaking of the hype around SDN, Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, wrote in a post on the No Jitter blog site that "most companies I talk to couldn't give two hoots about SDN. Additionally, most application developers really have no concept of how to leverage an SDN to build more intelligent applications. There are a couple of exceptions, though. Most of the service providers I've interviewed do have an interest in SDNs, particularly to enable virtual services and manage the network more easily. Also, the only applications right now that can leverage SDNs are ones that rely heavily on the network, like UC services."

However, that's not to say SDN is all hype. The technology holds the promise of solving some significant problems in the data center around issues of networking complexity, cost programmability, flexibility and scalability. So both vendors and analysts are expecting the number of SDN test drives to grow as 2013 wears on. Real deployments of SDN systems are expected to start taking off late this year and early next.

Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

"SDN is very real for some of the big cloud providers … guys who are selling big Internet services," Gartner analyst Mark Fabbi told eWEEK. For enterprises, he added, it probably won't be until the fourth quarter that real deployments begin to take shape.

Predictions call for rapid adoption of SDN technologies over the next few years. IDC analysts in December 2012 said SDN revenues will climb from $360 million this year to $3.7 billion by 2016. SDN startup Plexxi—along with the Website SDN Central and venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners—said in a report in April that the SDN market will grow from $252 million in 2012 to more than $35 billion by 2017.

"This is definitely big," Lauren Cooney, senior director of software strategy and planning at Cisco, told eWEEK.

What makes SDN big is the promise it holds for making the data center more dynamic and more flexible. At a time when cloud computing and virtualization are taking hold in the data center, and trends like big data are demanding greater automation from the resources there, the network has become the roadblock.

Where servers and storage have become more virtualized and dynamic, networking is anything but, with much of the network intelligence held in complex, expensive physical switches and routers that can take weeks and months to program.

"The network is still in the mainframe era," Big Switch's Matlof said. "It's slow, you can't automate it and it drives vendor lock-in."

Cisco's Cooney agreed, noting that the traditional data center network is loaded with protocols and is complex. "Networking typically has not been something I'd call easy and simple," she said.

With SDN, that intelligence is taken out of the hardware infrastructure and placed into software-based controllers, making the network more programmable, more automated and less costly. Network applications and services can be created atop the SDN infrastructure, and SDN also allows for less vendor lock-in through open standards.

"SDN will get us into a more real-time network infrastructure," Gartner's Fabbi said. "Compute is already there."

It's just going to take time for SDN to get there. Right now the networking industry is in the early phases of what promises to be a long process, according to vendors and analysts. Cooney sees it as a rare technology transformation that comes along every eight to 10 years. "This fundamentally changes how you build applications and how you build a business," she said.

Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

One of the key challenges in this early phase will be defining what exactly SDN is, what the various vendors are offering and what works best in a particular environment. Established vendors such as Cisco, Extreme Networks, Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks are competing against startups like Big Switch Networks and companies like Dell and VMware, data center stalwarts who are relatively new to the networking space but want to become more complete enterprise IT solution providers.

Some vendors are looking to focus on Layers 2-3 to make the network themselves more automated and programmable. Others, like Embrace, want to focus higher up the stack, where the virtual services and applications—such as load balancers and firewalls—live. Still others are looking to create more complete SDN products.

There's not always a lot of agreement among vendors. Martin Casado was among the founders of the OpenFlow protocol, which has become a cornerstone of SDN. However, after his company, Nicira, was bought last year by VMware, Casado said OpenFlow was the wrong approach to take and that virtual switches in hypervisors—particularly vSwitches in VMware offerings—offered the best solution for programmability and automation in networks.

Gartner's Fabbi noted that lot of SDN products are on the market now to choose among, and they fall into a few categories. Vendors such as VMware, with Nicira, offer network overlays, where a virtual network is placed atop the traditional network, with networking "tunnels" created between the vSwitches and the network infrastructure. VMware is expected to integrate Nicira's technology into its virtualization offerings and commercialize it later this year, he said.

In a post on the No Jitter blog, Terry Slattery, a senior network engineer and a consultant with Chesapeake NetCraftsmen, said there are benefits to network overlays. "It is easy to implement and has a low cost because it only requires the addition of vSwitches for its implementation," Slattery wrote. "It allows an easy migration to the SDN world without wholesale equipment replacement."

However, they tend to be strictly data center platforms—rather than offerings that can work at the network edge—and add complexity with another layer on top of existing network protocols, he wrote.

Other vendors, like HP, support more of an SDN "pure play," Fabbi said. The company has OpenFlow-enabled many of its switches, is developing an open controller and is enabling developers to build applications on top of the controller. However, like other vendors, "HP right now has a lot of the components, but not all of them."

Bethany Mayer, senior vice president and general manager of HP Networking, told eWEEK that the company has 40 switch platforms that are OpenFlow-enabled, that its controller will be released in the second half of the year and that some of the applications currently are in beta. HP has shipped about 20 million ports of OpenFlow-enabled switches.

Software-Defined Networking: There's More to It Than Just Hype

Big Switch also is looking to offer a more complete solution with its Open SDN suite, which includes its Big Network Controller platform, Big Tap network monitoring tool and Big Virtual Switch, a network virtualization application.

There also are a range of startups offering point products that fill particular needs in SDN environments, Fabbi said.

As with anything in the networking space, Cisco gets a lot of attention. With SDN, Cisco's Open Network Environment (ONE) and OnePK (Platform Kit) are viewed as tools for helping the company defend its core networking business.

"They're really trying to protect their installed base by putting wrapping around it" and calling it SDN, Fabbi said. However, it won't be as open as is needed with SDN, given that it works best primarily with Cisco hardware, he said. Rivals were equally critical, with Big Switch's Matlof saying that "everything from Cisco is proprietary."

However, Cisco's Cooney pushed back. The company has OpenFlow-enabled some of its switches, it supports standards projects like OpenStack, is offering its ONE controller to the open-source community and its OnePK APIs allow third-party developers to create applications that can run atop Cisco's infrastructure, she said.

Brendon Whateley, principal solutions architect at Starview, which offers a business analytics and optimization platform, said his team is using Cisco's OnePK APIs to develop an application that will give customers much deeper visibility into their networking traffic. The company hopes to start selling the application later this year, Whateley told eWEEK. He said Starview chose Cisco's OnePK because it gave engineers APIs that can be used with all Cisco networking gear rather than only specific versions, making them much easier to use.

In addition, the OnePK APIs enabled the developers to create an application that goes deeper into the network than what they could have done in an OpenFlow environment.

Open standards will play a crucial role in the evolution of SDN, according to analysts and vendors. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) was established by such companies as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Verizon to help create a less complex, more programmable network, and has shepherded the development of OpenFlow. Other open standards groups, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), also are looking into SDN standards.

In April, a number of vendors, led by Cisco and IBM, created the OpenDaylight Project with the Linux Foundation, and their goal was to develop  a common open-source SDN platform—including the controller and southbound interfaces—that can be leveraged by vendors, who will compete at levels above the platform, including applications.

The project has generated some skepticism from vendors and analysts wary that it will be dominated by Cisco and IBM and will not lead to open, standards-based results, with many taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The ulterior motive for Cisco is to gain a voice in SDN, which they didn't have before," Gartner's Fabbi said.

Big Switch's Matlof called the project "a big question mark" because of Cisco's involvement. "If the industry is interested in open source and open standards in networking, do we really trust Cisco with this?"

Cisco's Cooney reiterated her company's support of open standards, noting the offer to give its Cisco Open Network Environment (ONE) controller to the project and its work on such groups as the ONF.

HP's Mayer stressed the need for open standards in everything from controllers to northbound and southbound interfaces.

"Those have to remain open, and we cannot allow [vendor lock-in] to happen, because then innovation will die and we just can't have that in the networking industry right now," she said.

Enterprise and service provider interest in SDN is high, according to analysts and vendors. Mayer said HP has more than 60 beta customers for its SDN offerings, and Cisco's Cooney said the ONE controller has more than 50 beta customers.

Starview's Whateley, who is using Cisco's OnePK APIs, said the hype around SDN is getting the interest of businesses like his, who understand what can be gained by the technology. However, for some, not a huge imperative exists yet to make the jump.

"There's a lot of 'that would be cool' stuff, and a lot less 'we can't live without that thing,'" he said.

Fabbi said that will come as the products begin to roll out.

"There certainly is very strong interest in the enterprise, but we're not quite there from the product side to flip the switch," he said.

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