SDN was still considered crazy technology when I was hired at Light Reading almost 18 months ago, espoused by engineers with no idea how the real world of business worked.
Now, SDN is inevitable. Service providers and vendors without SDN strategies face questions about whether they're prepared for the future. Companies that are well on their way to implementing SDN -- like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) -- are considered to have a commanding competitive lead. (See AT&T: SDN Is Slashing Provisioning Cycle Times by up to 95% and Metaswitch Relishes 'Disruptor' Role at AT&T.)
Prior to joining Light Reading, I had a long career in enterprise and consumer tech. I saw this kind of thing before in the 90s, with the move from proprietary platforms such as mainframes and minicomputers to Unix and Windows. I saw it again a couple of years later with the adoption of the Internet, and a few years after that with Linux and open source. They all went from crazy to mainstream.
What I had not seen before was a transformation that happened so quickly. Open systems and open source took a decade to win over the business mainstream. Even the Internet itself took five years.
SDN did it in 18 months.
You could argue that the transformation has been driven by demand. Enterprise customers are demanding service providers embrace the New IP, offering agility, reduced cost, innovative service and reduced maintenance. And it's true the demand is there.
But demand doesn't explain why incumbents have transformed so quickly. In past technology transformations, incumbents hung on to the status quo, and startups drove change. Over 25 years, we saw IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) give way to Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), which in turn lost ground to Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and the cloud providers. Sometimes the incumbents retool and recover after hard times -- IBM and maybe Microsoft. Sometimes they don't -- anybody remember Digital Equipment Corp.? How about BlackBerry ?
Or consider Eastman Kodak, which pioneered the digital camera in 1975. Behold the prototype in its 1970s glory! It had a cassette drive on which it stored images! All it needs is an 8-track player and disco ball to be perfect.
Kodak executives declined to sell it. They said nobody was complaining about prints. And besides, Kodak made a nice living selling photo paper, cameras and film processing.
With SDN, the incumbents are disruptors. We mentioned AT&T; also, NTT, Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF), Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS) and smaller but respected service providers like Equinix Inc. (Nasdaq: EQIX) and Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) have gone big on SDN. (See NTT Shares Critical SDN Lessons, Telstra Goes Global With Pacnet's NaaS Offer, Is DT About to Blow Our SDN Socks Off?, Telefónica: SDN Vendors Need to Interoperate , Telefónica Looks to SDN for Network Flexibility, Equinix Unveils SDN Engine for Cloud, Level 3: Analytics Unlocks SDN Potential and Level 3 Stays Ahead in the On-Demand Race.)
On the vendor side, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) birthed Insieme and then reabsorbed it, while VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) acquired Nicira Networks. Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) launched its Nuage Networks business for SDN. And Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) acquired Vyatta as a engine to transform the company from a storage networking provider to an SDN networking vendor. (See Insieme Is Imminent, VMware to Buy SDN Startup for More Than $1B, Alcatel-Lucent Spins Up Its SDN, and Brocade Buys Vyatta for Software Routing Smarts.)
Why did these big companies take SDN seriously when incumbents during past revolutions hung back? That's a bit of a puzzle. One reason might be that these companies have the example of those earlier incumbents. Indeed, covering the service provider industry in the 2010s feels a lot like covering the enterprise in the 90s did. Only I have less hair now.
Also, on the service provider side, incumbents are driven by competitive threats that came in hard and fast. Hypercloud providers and OTT services such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Facebook were early adopters of SDN, and are encroaching on traditional service providers' customers. Hypercloud providers have the scale of Tier 1 carriers while retaining their startup culture, and for traditional carriers it's adapt or die.
Another reason for the rapid transition might be that this generation of incumbents have the right people with both the vision and authority to make the change -- people like John Donovan, senior executive vice president, AT&T technology and operations, who is leading the shake-up of the company's entire network engineering business unit in order to be sure the service provider remains relevant.
Whatever the reason, rapid adoption of SDN goes hand-in-hand with accelerating change in the industry. With nearly 18 months at Light Reading under my belt, I will only make one prediction about where we'll be 18 months from now -- wherever we are, we'll be surprised at where we ended up and how fast we got there.