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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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.
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.

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. 
[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.
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