The marketplace for enterprise IT is full of potentially disruptive technologies that are challenging the dominance of leaders in a number of areas. The clarion call in networking is that SDN will topple Cisco’s supremacy. VMware created the server virtualization market and is now under attack from both replacements (Hyper-V and KVM) and cloud alternatives. While Wikibon research shows that there is still growth opportunity for virtualization into mission critical applications, VMware has targeted networking as an adjacency for expansion. In 2013 we saw a lot of SDN announcements including VMware NSX and Cisco ACI; this article will examine how these two market leaders will shape the SDN discussion.
Networking upgrade cycles are typically among the longest of any equipment in an enterprise data center. While servers follow Moore’s Law and storage has regular updates to disk drives (and now flash is having significant impact on architectures), networking equipment can take a decade to adopt new speeds; if we look at 10Gb Ethernet adoption, the standard was ratified in 2002 and while most networking cores are now 10Gb, most edge devices (and approximately 75% of servers) are still at 1Gb. Of course new features and functionality can be delivered outside of speed upgrades, but as discussed at the Open Networking User Group, customers would like to see the creation of a networking software ecosystem. The promise of software-defined networking is more than just the separation of control-plane and data-plane – it should allow IT more agility with deployments and the integration of solutions from a broader set of application providers. This vision is still far from reality today. The OpenDaylight initiative will deliver a controller, but it is uncertain if it can deliver an open API platform that any software vendor can deliver applications through.
A software-based solution like VMware NSX holds an advantage for early adopters who want to test out a solution versus Cisco’s ACI which requires the commitment of purchasing a new hardware platform. Service providers and large enterprises that act like service providers are also more likely to lean towards a software-based solution that gives them more flexibility on the hardware choice.
SDN does have potential to disrupt Cisco’s dominance, but Cisco is so good at marketing solutions and preparing the army of CCIEs that it is likely to keep ahead of the majority of users with a “good enough” solution for those who look to adopt SDN. As for VMware, while it will still be years before we know if the $1.26B bet on networking will pay off, it has vaulted itself further into the networking conversation than most of the traditional networking contenders have in the last decade.
Action Item: CIOs and IT teams must start the SDN discussion with an understanding of the strengths and gaps of the organization. IT has a tendency to allow existing relationships and inertia to prevent significant changes. If SDN solutions are successful, they can dramatically change the cost equation of deploying and managing the network, but there is not yet a clear leader or simple solution that users can rapidly adopt today. VMware and Cisco lead the conversation due to their respective market positions, but they should only be the starting point for SDN evaluation.