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Cisco Links SDN & Policy

Craig Matsumoto
News Analysis
Craig Matsumoto

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has devised a plan to take advantage of software-defined networking (SDN) that involves bringing service providers closer to the information that's needed for smart policy decisions.

It's all about taking advantage of the information that's already in the network -- information that's not being put to good use, said David Ward, CTO and chief architect of Cisco's service provider divison, at the recent Open Networking Summit.

Take enterprise applications. "You see odd or kind-of weak attempts at trying to divine what the network is doing," Ward said in an interview with Light Reading. "We can provide that directly into those really big development platforms that are out there. Our strength is being able to get that data out and make it available."

In other words, Ward believes Cisco can utilize SDN to unlock network information that can then be put to use in policy, authentication or quality of service applications.

There's a lot of skepticism about whether SDN and Cisco can get along. SDN is all about separating network management from network equipment. That could mean turning routers into dumber, programmable boxes controlled by an outside source, thus commoditizing Cisco's most important product lines.

Naturally, Cisco doesn't share that view. "I absolutely do not see our platforms getting commoditized," Ward said. "We're looking at more interfaces to them. We're looking at more functionality."

Ward has been around the block. A former IOS XR architect, he rejoined Cisco late in 2011 after working at Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) for a time and he has dozens of routing protocols under his belt. He'll often finish a sentence by tacking on a tirade about why a certain protocol did or didn't succeed, or about how something being tried today is so similar to a particular standard from years ago. (See Cisco Adds Another Juniper Exec.)

The current round of SDN, combined with the needs of mobile networks and video, prompted him to rethink a few things. Ward gave a talk at ONS that started with him describing an epiphany he'd had -- that two of the router tenets that have been the foundation of the Internet no longer need to hold true.

Ward turned next to the capabilities of the network, posing the question: Just what can service providers do with SDN?

To answer that, he looked at what resources SDN can tap -- network state, in particular.

He described a feedback loop that's yet to be fully exploited, created by analytics, policy and the network. That's where Cisco can put SDN to use, he said.

For service providers, SDN won't be about programming features into the network, Ward thinks, because that would open too many security and reliability questions. Service-provider SDN will be more about "the ability to integrate these different mechanisms of orchestration to put together new services," he told Light Reading after his talk.

He sees this direction being particularly useful for mobile operators. "They have ways of doing content. They have ways of getting your mobile phone onto the network. They have ways of doing transcoding and encoding and address management. They'll need a way to just pull it together, such that the policy you need for getting the right video with the right transcoding onto your mobile phone can be actually put into the network."

So, Ward's job will involve bringing Cisco into the SDN world. Cisco has also funded a spin-in called Insieme that's going to work in this area, and Ward said it's all part of one unified SDN strategy that Cisco has worked out. Insieme will craft its strategy as part of that team, not as an all-star outsider, he said. (See Cisco Outlines an SDN Plan.)

— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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Pete Baldwin
Pete Baldwin,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:34:51 PM
re: Cisco Links SDN & Policy

Cisco's approach does make sense, in terms of being able to grab and wield all this information that's locked up in the network. And of course, it makes sense from the point of view of a company that's already in the network.

I think a lot of SDN strategies are going to get tried out there, though. Service providers tend to be cautious, but SDN would let them try things on fractions of the network. It's like the way cloud computing got accepted inside enterprises: It usually started with some IT group wanting to do something that they wasn't allowed on the network, so they went rogue and used the cloud. I could see SDN nudging its way into service providers in a similar way.

I tend to agree with Ward that SDN doesn't equal the doom of Cisco, but I have to say I also see some interesting possibilities for replacing routers. Had a great talk with Vyatta about that; it's something I should find the time to write up.

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:34:49 PM
re: Cisco Links SDN & Policy


I would be quite interested to read about what Vyatta had to say.  Please do write it up.



User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 5:34:48 PM
re: Cisco Links SDN & Policy

+1 to the Vyatta write up.

Surely one of the key considerations is where the decision will have an impact on the value-add, end user and network optimisation. That question, in no way puts Cisco automatically, at the centre of the web.

Those 3 areas intersect but may not automatically correlate in the same place both within and across the network. So depending on the specifics of Vl-Add, End Usr & Ntwrk Optmstn, you will see a different level of interplay across the network.

An example of said would be cloud networking and mobile networks. The policy components for LTE are located within the core and interact with users at a distance today. That functionality will need to become more distributed, as the bandwidth threshold increases, or the policy will itself be devolved and pushed to the device or platform to determine. (Not unlike a cookie, that states your a "gold user" so have a priority path for voice & video but a 2nd tier path for push data. A Platinum user may have priority across all 3 paths, for example.)

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