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SDN architectures

SDN & the Commodity Question

6:00 PM -- I know a lot of people are waiting for software-defined networking (SDN) to bring down the Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) empire. Waiting for OpenFlow to commoditize network hardware into the ground.

I get asked about that all the time. I just don't see it happening in the short term.

In the long term, I'm less sure.

The seeds are certainly there. OpenFlow allows a controller to dictate commands to switches; ergo, the switches can be dumb and simple, so the argument goes. The possibilities aren't lost on the new SDN companies -- a Big Switch Networks presentation linked to its commercial launch Tuesday repeatedly mentioned "low-cost Ethernet Switches" as its target devices.

The ingredients are out there, too. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), at its recent developer forum, released a DIY kit for a commodity server. It uses Fulcrum Microsystems switch chips, Xeon processors and software from Wind River (well, a Linux kernel anyway).

But commoditization of the hardware is not an easy process for the customers, because right now, you can buy a network and have someone else (usually Cisco) do a lot of the work for you. Assembling your own network out of generic Made-in-Taiwan switches might be fun for Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), but it did take a lot of work.

And the switches still have to perform. I like the basketball analogy posed by Simon Leopold, an analyst with Raymond James Financial Inc. (NYSE: RJF), in an SDN report he issued this week: "Imagine how poorly a team would perform if after each pass, the team paused to consult the coach. Rather, the coach provides the general strategy and guidance yet leaves the execution to the team."

There's also the fact that the hardware won't necessarily be cheap. OpenFlow was designed to exploit a router's ternary content-addressable memories (TCAMs), a specialized and costly type of chip. And OpenFlow 1.2 potentially increases the amount of TCAM space you'll need.

So many signs seem to point away from commoditization. And yet -- I can't bring myself to bet against easy and cheap. At the moment, SDN doesn't have either trait on its side, but a lot of people are going to be working to change that.

For what it's worth, the SDN executives whom LRTV spoke to recently don't think hardware vendors are in imminent danger (caveat: two of them are hardware vendors), and Ankur Singla, CEO of Contrail Systems , even cites Cisco and Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) as being well poised to break away into a software-dominated future. He's got a point.



— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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