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Commentary: Cisco may lead in cloud networks if it does OpenFlow right

Networking vendors haven't met providers' needs for cloud networks. But Cisco's reported commitment to OpenFlow and SDN may change the game, says commentator Tom Nolle.

I've been watching to see how long it would take networking equipment vendors to begin to recognize that they have to push more than just boxes. Although we now have indications that -- at least for some of those vendors -- the time has arrived for innovation in cloud networks, don't expect any rapid results from these people. There's an internal culture to fight, and its inertia must be seen to be believed. But maybe the head-in-the-sand period is ending, and competitive pressure may spread the attention to cloud networks to the whole market.

Cisco Systems, which recently updated its Unified Computing System (UCS) portfolio, is reportedly working seriously on OpenFlow and software-defined networking (SDN) with the intention of being a leader in this space. The OpenFlow protocol supports networks where connections must be explicit -- a major shift from the discovered-route model of Ethernet and IP. While the governmental, educational and developer support for OpenFlow has made it hard for any vendor to ignore, I hadn't really expected any of them to get behind it in a meaningful way. But now the story is that Cisco will do just that.

Inside cloud networks -- not only in the data center, but also between cloud data centers -- OpenFlow could have significant benefits because it is inherently more secure and easier to traffic-engineer for specific service levels. It would fit well with a data center switching strategy, which is apparently where Cisco intends to include it. From there, expansion to cloud networks isn't rocket science, and Cisco might therefore be the first to provide what's coming to be called "Network as a Service," a business model for cloud connectivity. Interestingly, the cloud and any cloud application -- specifically content delivery networks (CDNs) -- are exempt from net neutrality, even in the FCC's interpretation of it.

The "inside-the-cloud" point here is critical. With its UCS servers, Cisco is the networking equipment vendor with the best logical jumping-off point for a cloud story, but it's not yet been able to come up with anything transformational. In fact, network vendors have been struggling to come up with any compelling reason to think the cloud will change the network and that there's any special contribution that the network can make. If Cisco gets these two developments together and then sings a pretty song (John Chambers is, after all, the industry's master crooner), they could really grab control of this space.

About the author:
Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his blog for the latest in communications business and technology development.

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This was last published in March 2012

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