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SDN architectures

Cisco Asks the Killer SDN Question

Cisco's unveiling of its Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI) strategy and plans for its Insieme Networks "spin-in" has raised some core questions for all those interested in the software-defined networking (SDN) debate: Can, or even should, the theory of pure SDN be put into practice?

I won't go into the details of what Cisco Systems Inc. is doing -- my colleague Dan O'Shea has done an admirable job on that front already. (See Cisco's ACI Gets Physical With SDN.)

What is more interesting is whether Cisco's hardware-centric approach -- even if it is driven by an inevitable protectionist streak -- is the one that will, ultimately, make most sense for network operators. Because the debate really isn't about whether this is a SDN play or not. And it isn't just about whether Cisco is looking to lock customers into its technology, though of course that is a major issue and talking point.

The key debate is whether network decision-makers will weigh up their options and decide they are more happy with what Cisco has to offer compared with the alternatives. And this isn't a straightforward issue: Such decisions will be based on personal experiences, finances, skill sets, perceptions, prejudices, and all the other criteria that come into play when human beings (flawed, complex and often unpredictable as we all are) are involved. Only the other week I heard a senior executive from a major mobile operator say that he didn't care if the next-generation technology he was sourcing for his advanced 4G network was proprietary or not -- he just wants it to work.

So maybe the big question, then, is: Will the majority of network operators of any type (datacenter, wide area network, or both) bet their future on conformance to the emerging SDN specifications, standards, and models that are based on open source software and generic hardware?

Cisco, it seems, is betting that enough of them won't walk away from the IP giant with the sometimes intimidating reputation.

Of course, the Cisco pitch was always going to attract criticism. And given that Cisco has said its proposition will only work to optimum performance levels if its hardware (rather than any third-party gear) is deployed, it would be shocking if there wasn't some sort of outburst from the SDN community.

One of Cisco's main rivals, HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ), was pretty quick to issue a statement attacking the router giant's strategy. The "Insieme ACI poorly addresses market needs" because it is "incompatible and complex," claims HP. "ACI is incompatible with existing Nexus products, and ACI doesn't allow for inevitable migration or provide customer investment protection... Cisco is limiting customers' access to the benefits promised by SDN by locking them into a proprietary and Cisco-only architecture." It concludes that Cisco is "trying to defy the SDN movement with hardware-defined proprietary infrastructure."

Naturally, HP goes on to explain how its OpenFlow 1.3-enabled switches provide "the benefits promised by SDN now."

Here's an alternative, and more neutral, perspective from David Krozier, a telecom network infrastructure principal analyst at Ovum Ltd. .

    Cisco continues to promote the role of hardware in delivering future high performance networks and took great pains to distance itself from pure software-based overlay virtualized networks (like the Nicira technology VMware acquired, Junipers Contrail, and Alcatel-Lucent's Nuage) in the data center. Ovum notes that while the 9000 Series switches can operate standalone, the features provided by the APIC controller require Cisco hardware. While this may raise the hackles of those who believe future networks should be based on generic hardware platforms, this approach is unlikely to match the performance capabilities of ACI.

If you hear someone say "Better the devil you know" in networking circles in the coming months, those uttering that phrase might just be talking about Cisco's ACI.

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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[email protected] 11/7/2013 | 10:58:52 AM
This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Where ew are now reminds me of when IMS was first being talked about and then, further back, when session border controllers were being deployed and there were debates about the need to retain the purity of certain visions.

I think it's going to be very difficult to second-guess how network operators will evolve their SDN/virtulaization strategies. 

I would rule nothing out.
Carol Wilson 11/7/2013 | 11:21:47 AM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Deju vu all over again, as Yogi would say. I have witnessed many efforts to move away from proprietary hardware-linked software in the past and they have largely failed to live up to their initial promise for just the reasons you discuss here.

At some point, the network operators had to decide whether to take the leap and actually use the more standardized, open approach they had been advocating or accept a compromise based on the hardware solution of trusted vendors that approximates the same benefits without delivering the openess and flexibility of a multi-vendor standard.

Cisco is being pretty blatant here in throwing down the gauntlet. It's up to the network operators to make their choices. Given all the public statements from the likes of AT&T, Verizon, DT, Telefonica and more, it will be interesting to see how many flee the software-based approach for the safety of Big Brother Vendor. 
sam masud 11/7/2013 | 12:11:22 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Carol,

Agree there are advantages to solutions based on proprietary hardware. However, isn't the push for NFV also asking the market to do in software (running on general purpose servers) what typically has been provided via propriatary devices? So I guess the bottom line question is whether "virtual" or software-based solutions will have the reliability and performance of hardware-based solutions.

 
andrew_ 11/7/2013 | 1:07:32 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs I think there *is* a comparison with IMS/SBCs but that's the wrong one.

I remember when there was an argument that VoIP would never replace TDM as it couldn't deliver the reliability and quality of service required for toll-grade voice. Proponents of VoIP talked about a software layer that would control services, with hardware such as media gateways, media servers, etc being effectively commoditized (driven partly by the software architecture evolution and partly by availability of off-the-shelf silicon for media processing, and COTS hardware platforms such as ATCA).

Well, that's what has happened. The traditional Class 4/5 switch market collapsed, a healthy-but-smaller and more fragmented VoIP/IMS market emerged. Sure, there's still lots of business for the Ericssons and ALUs, but look at VoIP networks today, they include Metaswitch softswitches, Radisys media servers, Broadsoft app servers, Audiocodes gateways, etc etc. 

I would argue the same is happening with SDN. There will still be a role for Cisco but it will open up the possibility for smaller software vendors and ODM switch vendors building on off-the-shelf silicon to compete.

In this context, Cisco's Insieme initiative is an attempt to create a semi-open solution approach that embraces some of the architectural concepts, but keeps enough proprietary to maintain their margin wall. That will be fine for some of the market, while some will embrace more open solutions.
jhodgesk1s 11/7/2013 | 2:49:40 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Andrew,

Agreed. I think one day we will look back at 2013 as the year operators decided enough is enough and they needed to create the template for how they will evolve their networks.

And I think because of that, openness will be critical. The stakes are high for the incumbent vendors since I don't think the largest operators will continue to accept the trusty proprietary/ semi-open / premium model, when there a lots of other vendors willing to deliver lower cost open solutions. It only takes one large operator to prove this later model will work to open the floodgates.

It's not a great model for the vendors who are trying to balance customer demands with shareholder expectations, but it is for the operators, if they play their cards right.
[email protected] 11/7/2013 | 7:55:52 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Well, I think 2012 was the year the operators said "enough is enough", 2013 is the year in which they have said "yeah, right, enough is enough, but we need to figure out what enough is" and 2014 will be the year in which they will suggest what enough is and then see which financial model fits best with the money the CFO gives them. because there's always the financial criterion, right?

For sure, things have changed and the pendulum has, at least temporarily, swung in favor of carrier-power. But do they have the wherewithall to do anything about it? That SDN/NFV might not be the silver bullet some think is already recognised by those involved in the ETSI NFV group, and has been from day 1.

SO the other big question is -- even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions? 

For me, this all boils down to whether the operators understand how the potential new networks might work. And if they're not confidnet in that, then it'll be a case of 'better the devil you know'...
[email protected] 11/7/2013 | 7:59:55 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Well, I think 2012 was the year the operators said "enough is enough", 2013 is the year in which they have said "yeah, right, enough is enough, but we need to figure out what enough is" and 2014 will be the year in which they will suggest what enough is and then see which financial model fits best with the money the CFO gives them. because there's always the financial criterion, right?

For sure, things have changed and the pendulum has, at least temporarily, swung in favor of carrier-power. But do they have the wherewithall to do anything about it? That SDN/NFV might not be the silver bullet some think is already recognised by those involved in the ETSI NFV group, and has been from day 1.

SO the other big question is -- even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions? 

For me, this all boils down to whether the operators understand how the potential new networks might work. And if they're not confidnet in that, then it'll be a case of 'better the devil you know'...
yarn 11/8/2013 | 10:38:11 AM
A question of balance It seems to me a question about finding the right balance between network functions running on generic servers versus purpose-built network appliances. That balance will shift to servers as generic processor technology is enhanced with hardware-based acceleration for networking functions, and it will shift faster in the control and management plane than in the data plane.

It'll take time to prove out the various use cases and see where it will make business sense. With network appliances the cost of the software is mostly subsidized by the hardware, which may make appliances seem more expensive than generic server hardware. But if you unbundle the software that gap may actually be a lot smaller than you'd think, and it will require additional integration and validation to fit in a custom environment.

At the end of the day you still need to have something that is reliable, can be reproduced at a large scale and is cost competitive with alternatives.
Luiz Lourenco 11/8/2013 | 12:48:05 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Ray, your question "even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions?" is right to the point! At least in the context of Latin America, where I live, I'm not aware of any operator who has invested heavily on technical training and high level knowledge aquisition, management and sharing for their employees. All carriers have traditionally depended on the vendors to design, implement and, sometimes, even manage their networks, proposing solutions, planning expansions, etc. Cisco has a clear advantage in this context.

This is critical at this moment when such fundamental decisions must be made about the future of their plants. Working for one of the top telecom vendors in the world, I see everyday the many difficulties and doubts my customers have about what technology to choose and more often than not they come to us to ask for help and advice. Of course the same happens with other vendors and the result is that the operators' networks are a battle field where each manufacturer tries to impose their visions and approaches always aiming at defending and increasing their market share.

Like many other technology standards wars we have seen in the past, the winner will hardly be the best technical solution but the most feasible business model and far away from the one-size-fits-all approach, what may lead to several different implementations - vendor-specific, purely open and hybrid - on a case-by-case basis. At the end what matters is that all networks and devices shall integrate and interact seamlessly, at the lowest possible cost. Better the devil you know?
jhodgesk1s 11/8/2013 | 1:09:12 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs Luis, excellent post. However, I believe if you look at other regions such as North America and Europe, the telco's do have the technical skills to not only ask the right questions, but also write the RFIs that define the requirements on a more granular level.

 
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