The network equipment market has seen little change in more than a decade. Mainstream products today serve IT shops who must perform tedious, time-consuming administrative tasks, such as setting up addresses and routing traffic, all running on expensive hardware.
"The network industry learned from server virtualization that one way to reduce complexity -- or at least hide it -- is to create a layer of abstraction," said Casey L. Quillin, senior analyst at Dell'Oro Group.
Products featuring that layer are being lumped into a broad, somewhat amorphous category -- dubbed software-defined networking.
The has the potential to dramatically affect network equipment vendors. "SDNs represent the best chance that competitors have had to loosen Cisco's stranglehold on the network equipment market in quite a while," said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research.
With SDNs, many common tasks are decoupled from the hardware and become software functions, usually running on commodity hardware. In addition, suppliers can add an application program interface (API) to their network protocol stacks, tie their devices into management systems and enterprise applications and automate many administrative tasks.
For enterprises, the change has the potential to ease network administration, speed up service deployments and reduce costs. Because the potential benefits are so great, customer interest is growing.
Vendors are responding with products offering a variety of SDN techniques. Traditionally, suppliers relied on proprietary protocols to support their networking functions, but now open source solutions are emerging as a viable alternative. Consequently, vendor strategies range from an emphasis on proprietary solutions to those based largely on open source initiatives.
Cisco's strategy is called the "Open Network Environment," or Cisco ONE. It includes agents and controllers, and overlay network technologies designed to make each layer of a network -- from the transport layer up through the management layers -- programmable. Unlike many vendors, Cisco is not decoupling the control plane from the forwarding plane. Also, it relies heavily on OpenFlow software -- as agents, main network protocol and APIs -- to control switches from other vendors, rather than embracing open source alternatives.
Juniper Networks Inc.
Juniper Networks Inc. has developed Qfabric, which includes a node (top-of-rack switch), an interconnect (core switch) and a director (controller). Similar to Cisco's strategy, Juniper's technique relies on upper-level APIs largely controlling the network devices, and a management and orchestration layer that marginalizes the impact of open source protocols.
Founded in 2006, Vyatta Inc. raised more than $40 million in venture capital and developed its own open source router platform, the Vyatta Open Flexible Router. While the product line can work with the other open source initiatives, the company's approach is similar to those from Cisco and Juniper, where much of the networking functions are controlled by its own equipment.
In 2008, researchers at Stanford University created the OpenFlow Switching specification. Since they did not have a commercial interest, they relied on an open source model to spread their work, which has garnered a lot of attention. About a year ago, vendors started to outline plans to deliver products based on OpenFlow, and the list of supporters has been growing.
OpenFlow has become a favorite among startups. ADARA Networks developed several software-defined networking products -- Horizon, Ecliptic, Axis, Echo, Sirius, Orion and Comet -- that are available individually and as modules in its Constellation Full Stack Engine.
Big Switch Networks Inc.
Founded in 2010, Big Switch Networks Inc., whose management team comes from Stanford and Cisco, raised $39 million in venture capital. Touted under the banner Open Software-Defined Network (Open SDN), Big Switch solutions support virtual overlays between hypervisor-based switches and directly integrate with physical OpenFlow switches.
Nicira Inc.'s founders Nick McKeown, Scott Shenker and Martin Casado played key roles in the development of the OpenFlow specification. The company raised $40 million in venture capital and developed the Nicira Virtualization Platform, networking products that create an intelligent abstraction layer between end hosts and existing networks.
Vello Systems is a privately held, Silicon Valley network equipment supplier. The company's VellOS network operating system and the Vello Data Center Gateway platform are built on OpenFlow SDN capabilities.
Some established suppliers have also boarded the OpenFlow train. Hewlett-Packard Co. is developing a new controller line: the Virtual Application Networks SDN Controller. The OpenFlow protocol has become a key element in its FlexNetwork SDN push: Twenty-five of its switches, including the HP 3500, 5400 and 8200 series products, now support the standard. By the end of the year, the company expects all of its switches will support OpenFlow.
NEC Corp. introduced its ProgrammableFlow Network Architecture and Product Family. OpenFlow functionality has been incorporated into the company's ProgrammableFlow Controller, ProgrammableFlow PF5240 Switch and ProgrammableFlow Management Console.
Extreme Networks Inc.
Extreme Networks Inc. plans to provide OpenFlow support across its ExtremeXOS-based Ethernet switch portfolio and will extend support multiple OpenFlow controllers, including those from NEC and BigSwitch. Extreme Networks has a plug-in for OpenFlow to manage network switches using the open source APIs. Lastly, the company announced a new Web portal called xKIT will be launched aimed at sharing SDN applications.
Founded in 2010 by CEO Tatsuya Kato and chief technology officer Dan Mihai, Midokura has raised $5.5 million from Japanese investors. The company's MidoNet software, which relies on OpenStack, features virtual Layer 2 distributed switching, virtual Layer 2 isolation, virtual Layer 3 distributed routing, Layer 4 distributed load balancing and firewall services, stateful and stateless NAT, and live migration. The company's U.S. operations are based in San Francisco.
Given the fact that the SDN movement is nascent, and established vendors need to add such features to their product lines, consolidation has started in earnest. In July 2012, VMware bought Nicira for $1.26 billion. "The price was higher than most expected, but EMC's purchase of VMware ($625 million) seemed like a lot at the time, but turned out to be a bargain," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. In November, Brocade purchased Vyatta for an undisclosed amount.
The SDN market is emerging and promises to change how enterprise networks are built. In addition, it has the potential to shake up the network equipment vendor pecking order.
About the author
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing and data-center-related topics. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.