Alcatel-Lucent Joins Cisco, HP, Others in SDN Push

The company is basing its software-defined networking play on its Application Fluent Network technology rather than OpenFlow.

Alcatel-Lucent this week became the latest networking vendor to make its move into the increasingly competitive software-defined networking space, unveiling a strategy that will be based on its own Application Fluent Network solution.

But as Alcatel-Lucent moves to join the growing SDN crowd, the company also is looking to differentiate itself from the pack by using the Application Fluent Network as the foundation of its initiative, rather than the OpenFlow protocol, which most other networking vendors are focusing on.

The Application Fluent Network technology, based on the company’s OmniSwitch platform, was developed two years ago to create a networking fabric that was flexible and dynamic, and could automatically adjust its policies and configure itself to meet the demands of whatever applications are running on it. Now the company is enhancing the platform to increase the programmability and application-awareness of networks.

Alcatel-Lucent isn’t dismissing OpenFlow; it’s just that support for the protocol won’t come until 2014. Given how early in the SDN game the industry is, that shouldn’t be a problem, according to Zeus Kerravala, principle analyst with ZK Research.

“The company also announced support for OpenFlow, but not until 2014,” Kerraval wrote in a Nov. 28 post on the NoJitter blog site. “I've had a few people ask me about this and I don't really see an issue with this, considering how early we are in the SDN cycle. Also, contrary to some of the misinformation out there, one doesn't need OpenFlow to do SDN. It's certainly one way to do it, but it's not the only way.”

SDN’s are still in their formative years, he said. Kerravala pointed to a recent study he conducted that showed that 92 percent of organizations are interested to some degree in SDNs, but that most are still only beginning that journey. Just more than 80 percent are in the research or testing phase, he said.

SDNs are getting an increasing amount of attention from organizations that see the technology as a way of making their data center infrastructures more flexible and dynamic, as well as easier to program and more cost-effective. SDNs essentially remove the network intelligence from complex, costly hardware switches and other appliances and move it into the software layer, making programming much easier and networks more scalable and flexible.

Established networking vendors like Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Juniper Networks and Brocade are beginning to flesh out SDN strategies that at least in part are based on OpenFlow. In addition, a host of smaller startups, including Big Switch Networks, are coming into the space as SDN pure-plays. There also are some data center players that don’t have much of a history in the networking space—including VMware and Oracle—that are adding SDN capabilities to their data center portfolios, primarily through acquisitions.

Alcatel-Lucent will bring the initial enhancements to the Application Fluent Network in the first half of 2013. Officials will increase the programmability of the platform through a set of RESTful APIs aimed at making it easier for the company’s OmniSwitch 10K and 6900 switches to communicate with applications, external controllers and orchestration platforms like OpenStack and CloudStack.

In addition, the company will improve the platforms ability to recognize applications and offer new application performance analysis of virtual machine connectivity to help it better react to how the network is impacting applications in real-time. Alcatel-Lucent also will add capabilities that will enable each device in the network to automatically be identified and brought online, which officials said will improve decision making at the network node level.

Alcatel-Lucent officials said that by addressing SDN initially through extensions to the company’s Application Fluent Network technology, they will enable businesses to do more than simple network configuration, and will create in improved user experience via greater automation and scalability that is compatible with existing networks.

Kerravala, of ZK Research, in his blog applauded Alcatel-Lucent for trying to address some of the challenges inherent in this early stage of SDNs, including management issues, enabling organizations to leverage what they already have in the network, and ease of use. He noted that Google often is mentioned as a company pushing ahead with software-defined networking.

“They've got literally hundreds of PhDs running their network, so if any company will be able to leverage SDNs today, it's them,” Kerravala wrote. “Most companies, particularly small to mid-size ones, need high levels of automation to make sure when this stuff gets put into a running network, it works! While the promise of SDNs is to simplify things, let's not kid ourselves—the path there may not be so simple.”