I have great respect for my previous company, Cisco Systems, and truly believe that the company has successfully brought a disruptive approach of applying network technologies to answer major business challenges.
Working at Cisco was like being conferred with an honorary doctorate from an Ivy League school in engineering, management, leadership and entrepreneurship simultaneously . The experience of working in multiple lines of businesses was helpful in shaping the mindset on how best to manage innovations and productize them so that it was mutually beneficial to the customers and the company. This productization often required an intense validation process, which resulted occasionally in some really cool technology ideas not ever seeing the light of day. Thoughts presented for the rest of this blog are an attempt to share my experience and possibly dispel some myths in the industry.
Myth – One Vendor Can Answer All Networking Requirements
Network vendors for the longest time have enjoyed a monopoly (or duopoly). If an organization had some IT infrastructure requirements, there were a handful of vendors that would satisfy all their needs. This was great for everyone! As a measure of risk mitigation, a famous unwritten policy surfaced that “you would not lose your job if chose vendor C (or A, H, J).”
This is because the network is a special function, requires special skills and the vendors provide the organization with all the knowledge needed to operate their equipment. As customers adopted the unwritten policy and filled vendors’ coffers globally, the vendors faced tremendous pressure to continue to accelerate their business . While early competitors provided more focused solutions, rather than simplifying the network layer, networking increased in complexity due to multi-vendor deployments and operational nuances. This brought the standards body to the fore, which caused further delays in delivering a solution or features. The standards body became a battleground for developers since every expert had a unique way to solve the problem at hand and a laborious process of converging on an acceptable solution ensued. The standards became so vague that vendor implementations would not even inter-operate. The customer tended to lose out in this battle, since they did not have the control they needed on the infrastructure they owned.
On the other hand, the revenue-generating infrastructure, such as the server and the software layers, were fast evolving. An evolution toward simplification and accelerated application development occurred because the open source community empowered the software developer. With that, the developers built customized, powerful, yet simple software stacks that tackled some of the most complex issues, such as server scaling, web experience improvement and acceleration, security and many others.
Frameworks quickly emerged that catered to every environment and solved most issues. The hardware differences and related issues quickly evaporated and enabled the organizations to focus and more quickly deliver revenue-generating services with higher success. The open-source community was the major force behind making this transition a resounding success. Powered by a collaborative open-source environment, developers leveraged the Linux operating system to integrate software components and create turnkey systems. LAMP stack, mashups, open APIs were all instrumental in transitioning to next-generation web architectures and services. The influence spread across all segments of business and consumer markets and considerably changed the way business was done, whether that meant the emergence of social networking, Web 2.0 interaction with end-customers, self-service models, and so on.
Clearly, the network layer lacked the agility, evolution and acceleration that the software layer perfected to adapt to the changes in the industry, which prompted an industry-wide question: “Can my software define my network?”
As you might have realized, this is a loaded question. Software defined networking (SDN) is a different end game to different vendors. Traditional vendors view the SDN concept primarily as a network and element management solution or a normalized way to communicate with the software on the equipment. Combining analytics with some auto-configurability and visibility to the network layer creates a sense of control. While this does provide some answers to the question above, it is certainly not complete. Ultimately, the question of networks being defined by software is to gain control over the network layer and customize it such that the business needs are addressed without spending an arm and a leg.
The biggest technical hurdle is to “un-learn” what we know, perceive and understand about networking and re-think how to evolve networks to suit specific needs. This does not mean routing or switching are forgotten; but more importantly, it means make the network an agile and innovative platform that is conducive to rapid application development. Having an API is a critical and significant first step toward creating an open network platform. Further development by leveraging the open-source community is critical in matching the benefits realized by the server and software layers.
For a single vendor to provide for all network requirements is almost impossible since they do not have the expertise of building software stacks (see ecosystem). The ecosystem is essentially aimed at augmenting traditional networks with new capabilities as a first step – nirvana being a state when the software stack is seamlessly able to program network services the same way the software stack programs servers. So notions of “next-generation SDN” and “more than SDN” are really a rush by vendors to adopt SDN rather than realistically enable the underlying intent of enabling the network as a platform.
Clearly, SDN needs much more effort than a marketing gig to re-package decade-old features in a trendy new way. Watch out for those sharks! This is not a race to who provides the best definition of the network as a platform or SDN. Instead, it’s an approach that opens up the network layer to bring in more network control and efficiency in order to answer those critical business challenges.