HP Makes Big SDN Push as It Challenges Cisco, Other Network Rivals

HP is aggressively expanding its SDN offerings, from more switches supporting OpenFlow to software and services aimed at helping businesses deploy and manage SDNs.

Hewlett-Packard, the world’s second-largest networking vendor, is making a significant push into what has become the hottest part of the market—software-defined networking, or SDN.

HP officials have been talking about embracing the SDN trend, and in February brought support for the OpenFlow protocol—which has become a key element in the SDN push—to 16 of its switches, including the HP 3500, 5400 and 8200 series products. At the time, they said that by the end of the year, all the switches in HP’s FlexNetwork networking architecture would support OpenFlow.

The tech giant on Oct. 2 announced an aggressive strategy to aggressively extend its reach into SDNs, not only adding OpenFlow support to more networking switches, but also unveiling a number of other products and services that HP officials said will offer businesses open-standards-based SDN solutions that touch everything from the infrastructure and control software to the application layer, all managed through a single control plane.

Such a broad offering is a key differentiator in a fast-growing part of the market that not only is seeing established networking stalwarts like Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks making moves, but also a host of startups and big-name tech companies—such as virtualization giant VMware—trying to gain a foothold.

"In the cloud era, clients need a single point of control for the entire network, which enables them to deploy any application or service directly to the user within minutes," Bethany Mayer, senior vice president and general manager of HP Networking, said in a statement. "Only HP provides clients with a complete software-defined network solution that automates manual configuration tasks across hardware, software and applications and from data center to desktop through a single control plane."

In SDNs, the idea essentially is to take many of the networking tasks currently performed on expensive pieces of hardware and do them instead in software. Doing so moves the intelligence in the network—such as directing traffic to minimizing latency to security—from switches and routers to software-based controllers. Industry observers see SDNs as a natural step in the increasing virtualization of data centers; server virtualization is becoming commonplace, and storage virtualization is being adopted. Bringing such capabilities to networks is part of the evolution of data centers.

Cisco, Juniper, Extreme Networks and other established players already are making moves in the space. Smaller vendors and startups like Big Switch Networks, Vyatta and Adara are building businesses around software-defined networks. In addition, vendors like VMware—which in July announced it was buying SDN startup Nicira for $1.26 billion—also are looking to offer SDN capabilities as part of their larger infrastructure solutions.

HP is now expanding its SDN ambitions as part of its Virtual Application Networks initiative. The company is bringing OpenFlow support to nine new FlexNetwork switches, including the new HP 3800 switch series. In addition, HP is developing its own controller—the Virtual Application Networks SDN Controller—moving the network intelligence from the hardware to the software layer. The new controller will give businesses a centralized view of the network and a way to automate the configuration of devices in the infrastructure, a job that often was done manually through CLI entries. The controller will bring greater flexibility and scalability to networks, according to HP. In addition, APIs will enable third-party developers to create enterprise applications for the networks.

Software that HP created for the controller includes its new Sentinel Security software, which automates network access control and intrusion prevention security for campus networks that use OpenFlow-enabled switches. HP officials said such capabilities not only will save enterprises money on networking hardware for these environments, but also will give them security capabilities they need for bring-your-own-device (BYOD) efforts, where businesses are struggling to find ways to secure their networks as employees bring a growing range of smartphones and tablets to the workplace. HP also is creating new Virtual Cloud Networks software, which will enable cloud providers to bring more automated and scalable public cloud services that can be leveraged by enterprises. Through these services, businesses will be able to create isolated virtual cloud networks in public clouds.

Along with these, HP’s Technology Services’ group is rolling out a number of services designed to help businesses learn about, design and deploy SDNs.

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, said it was good to see HP making such a strong move into an SDN space in which rivals like Cisco and Juniper already were establishing a presence. The services capabilities are a particular differentiator for HP from vendors like Cisco, which is relying more on its stronger channel capabilities to help businesses design, deploy and manage their SDN initiatives, Kerravala said in a blog on Network World.

However, he did question HP’s decision to develop its own SDN controller, saying it would have made more sense for HP to instead look to support a wide range of controllers already hitting the market.

“I’d rather see HP support as many controllers as possible, rather than build its own,” Kerravala wrote. “However, as I’ve said before, the SDN wars have become a game of stacks, and HP is choosing to build an end-to-end stack. If you’ve got Cisco’s share, this probably is the right approach, but HP’s No. 2 share position in networking is primarily made up of edge switching, meaning they’re a minority share player in the data center. HP’s best approach would be interoperability, which is something ProCurve has focused on since its inception.”

Some of HP’s offerings won’t be ready until next year. While customers immediately can get OpenFlow support on switches and the Sentinel Security software, the controller and Virtual Cloud Networks Application won’t be ready until the second half of 2013. The services will start rolling out in early 2013.

HP will show off its networking capabilities at the Interop 2012 show in New York this week.