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5 questions to ask about open data centers

Editor’s note: In this opinion piece, industry analyst Zeus Kerravala shares his thoughts on open data centers and Extreme Networks’ approach. Extreme Networks is a client of Kerravala’s ZK Research, a consulting firm based in Westminster, Mass.

Open is an overused word in the networking industry. Every vendor claims to be open. The degree of openness can vary greatly from vendor to vendor, however. In theory, having one open API is technically open. An engineer or developer can’t do much with a single API, but it is open.

Consider mobile phones, for example.  Apple’s interfaces are open, but they only let developers and partners access the features Apple enables — and the rest of the phone is locked down. This is also true in networking. As a result, network professionals need to do their homework and make sure they ask the right questions about open data centers.

The terms “open” and “standards-based” are often used interchangeably, but they are two different things. A vendor can be open and standards-based or closed and standards-based. Similarly, the vendor can be proprietary and open or proprietary and closed. For example, Apple’s open interfaces are proprietary, as is Windows. Linux is open and standards-based, so anyone can work on it.

Network professionals considering a network refresh in the data center are likely to hear the word open tossed around a lot. But networking pros need to understand how open data centers and vendors actually are. I would start by asking the following questions:

  • Is your service multi-vendor?
  • Which vendors do you support?
  • Do you support just network vendors or can you support other technologies, such as application delivery controllers and security appliances?
  • How big is the community of developers that uses your software products?
  • How easily can I interface with other users of the product?

Open source tool enables automation

One networking vendor, Extreme Networks, unveiled this week a data center product with an emphasis on open. Extreme’s new Agile Data Center comprises several products, including Extreme Workflow Composer, Embedded Fabric Automation, Extreme Management Center (XMC), ExtremeAnalytics and two new hardware platforms.

This is the first major data center announcement for Extreme since it acquired Brocade’s data center assets in 2017. Agile Data Center combines Brocade and Extreme technologies.

Instead of relying heavily on APIs for network programmability and automation, Extreme Workflow Composer is a network automation tool based on StackStorm, an open source platform designed for runbook automation. It’s based on DevOps automation and focuses primarily on running workflows.

Extreme could have built Workflow Composer as a proprietary tool. Instead, it opted for an open source product, which is familiar to engineers, and provides an ecosystem that’s creating integration packs.

Multi-vendor network integration

Extreme’s definition of open essentially means no vendor lock-in. WorkFlow Composer can automate workflows across any vendor, including Arista, Cisco and Juniper. Extreme can integrate with more than 100 vendors that have integration packs on exchange.stackstorm.org. Customers may have to tweak the code some, but they do not have to start with a blank sheet of paper.

StackStorm extends beyond networking, too. As a result, engineers who use Workflow Composer can extend the automation capabilities to things like Palo Alto and Check Point firewalls, VMware vSphere, ServiceNow’s service desk and others.

You could argue the network is the foundation of a modernized data center as it provides the connectivity fabric between everything. But open data centers incorporate more than just networking. By building Workflow Composer on StackStorm, Extreme can orchestrate and automate workflows from the network to the application — and everything in between.

Getting its foot in the door

Additionally, XMC is also designed for multi-vendor management with a goal of helping customers transition from an old data center to a modernized one without having to rip and replace. Extreme’s strategy here is not to be magnanimous, but rather it’s a strategic bet.

Despite being close to $1 billion in revenue, Extreme is still a minority-share player in networking. Don’t expect a customer to take out its existing infrastructure and replace it with Extreme overnight.

A better approach is to help customers manage their environments and when the network devices come up for renewal, compete for the business then. This approach is similar to the one Aruba Networks took when it was a startup with its AirWave management tool. At one time, it managed Cisco access points (APs) better than Cisco’s own tools. This strategy helped Aruba get its foot in the door of many companies, which it eventually parlayed into the AP business.

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