Problem inside a maze

SDN: Still A Solution In Search Of A Problem?

Problem inside a mazeNetworks are facing serious problems with the four Vs — volume, velocity, variety and variability — so it should come as no surprise that any glimmer of a hope, i.e. software defined networking, is generating significant interest. While most of the interest in SDN is positive — new and existing vendors and a growing number of end users are singing its praises (at least in numerous product roadmaps and surveys) — there is also ample evidence that FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is alive and well.

Carrier concerns about SDN surfaced at the recent Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF). Carriers like the promise of SDN and NFV but are worried about the business model. They’re afraid that  — like previous networking panaceas (ISDN and ATM) that failed to take over the network because, in the end, they “didn’t pass the dollar test,” said Bob Mandeville, president of testing consultancy Iometrix — carrier SDN lacks an urgent, specific use case to propel it, as opposed to data-center SDN, which is being prodded by the increase in east-west traffic and the need to flexibly network all these virtualized functions.

Not even data-center SDN is immune from growing concerns. Steven Hill, Senior Analyst, Data Center Solutions, Current Analysis, wonders if all this interest in SDN isn’t overblown. There’s no question that SDN can solve a number of problems facing the next generation of network administrators, but those problems may not be as earth-shaking as vendors would like you to believe.

He noted that SDN solutions, regardless of vendor, have been facing slow adoption, perhaps because the pain points they address may only be minor irritations to the typical enterprise today. He attributes that, at least in part, to the fact that the operation of the network itself is the responsibility of a very small group of individuals who are charged with keeping the system up and running, so whatever benefits SDN may actually provide will only directly affect them… with the hope that the rest of the benefits will appear in the form of improved network performance that may or may not be apparent to the end user.

It occurs to me that the current hype over SDN may be a remarkable case study of the tail wagging the dog, and the real question is: “Who or what is driving the tail?” For SDN to start making real inroads in the enterprise, network vendors need to find a way to articulate the value proposition of SDN far more clearly for environments where the benefits may not be readily apparent and to the people who keep things running, stated Hill.

A recent survey from Juniper Networks reported that users are divided over SDN: those who see potential for SDN to transform the traditional market, and those who think the reality won’t live up to the hype. Almost half (48%) of the companies polled said they still have no SDN plans. Of those that plan to deploy SDN, 74% are looking to do so within the next 12 months, but, only 27% of the total of 400 respondents are completely or almost completely ready to integrate SDN.

Scott Raynovich, Chief Analyst and Publisher of The Rayno Report, said the SDN market ‘has been frozen’ by the battle between Cisco, VMware, and a gaggle of startups to take leadership, which has resulted in Fear Uncertainty and Doubt. ‘Last year’s big moves by Cisco were classic FUD moves’, including the acquisition of Insieme spin-off and launch of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), which has already missed its release date.

‘This slow roll by Cisco, intentional or not, has resulted in the textbook technology result: A classic “frozen” market as customers, analysts, and industry experts say that Cisco was largely successful in somewhat freezing the market.’

That’s not to say Cisco doesn’t expect big things from SDN. During its recent earnings call where it announced it would axe 8% of its workforce (6,000 jobs), CEO John Chambers said he thinks the shift in the network infrastructure market to software-defined networking will benefit the vendor.

He extolled the benefits of SDN and said that “those of you who are out there who think SDN is going to drive down our gross margins, in my opinion, you’re just wrong. You’re going to see us embrace SDN, you’re going to see us implement it for the value that it has. We not only will lead with this implementation, it will allow us to get higher gross margins on our switching and architecture.”

A sign that SDN interest is about to take off is VMware opening up its NSX portfolio to its channel partners. “We deliberately held it back from our channel partners to make sure we were getting ready to cross the chasm, so that way when it’s ready, the product’s ready, the market’s ready, the demand is there, and it’s ready to go,” said SVP & GM Steve Mullaney. “Because nothing is worse for a channel partner than to get people ready before the demand is there.”

He said now that VMware has ramped up channel offerings, partners should strike while the iron’s hot.

“We have hundreds of paying customers using NSX for two main reasons. The first is just agility and automation and building a real cloud data center, and the second is better security through microsegmentation,” said Mullaney. “Every single one of our customers are doing both of those things.”

In a Cisco-versus-VMware SDN showdown, channel partners seem to prefer ACI over NSX. Results from an August survey of 60 solution providers showed that the majority of respondents, 43%, would recommend Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches and its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) — the two key components of Cisco ACI — over VMware NSX, while 22% said they would recommend Cisco’s Nexus 9000 with VMware NSX running on top of the switches as a single, integrated solution. Only 2 percent of partners said they would recommend NSX running on white-box or non-Cisco networking gear.

As to what Cisco, VMware and everybody in the SDN sweepstakes are battling for, a new study expects the North American market to be worth $1.443 billion by 2019, exploding almost tenfold from $160 million in 2014, a CAGR of 55.4%. According to the MicroMarket Monitor report, other key players include Hewlett-Packard, Juniper, Plexxi, and Alcatel-Lucent.

This back-and-forth FUD-versus-bandwagon, tempest in a teapot controversy is nothing new to the IT industry. However, between the growing business/network challenges and and virtualize-everything movement, I’m fairly confident that the SDN movement will continue to gather momentum.