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Networking virtualization software and OpenFlow take hold

Network virtualization software was all the buzz at Interop 2011, from OpenFlow and software-defined networking to virtual network appliances for optimization.

What’s all this software doing at my networking show?

If there was a general theme throughout my conversations with folks at Interop last week, it was that software is the future of networking. It could be said that this has always been the case, as even the prettiest rack of switches are nothing without the code that drives them. Yet this year, the OpenFlow specification – which was merely a research project at Stanford up until just a few months ago – was the darling of the show, with most networking vendors either announcing their software-defined networking strategies – or being pressed to do so by journalists.

Even beyond network virtualization, software-only network appliances have migrated from being an option for dev/test environments, to a production-ready product – and that was also apparent at the show. Every vendor I spoke with at Interop 2011 was touting a virtual version of their hardware appliances. Infoblox, for example, was talking virtual IP address management and configuration management, while BlueCoat made the case for virtualized WAN optimization and security appliances.

Cloud-based network management – which is basically software driven – was also the rage at Interop. PowerCloud, for example, was at the show explaining how its technology enables OEM partners to offer cloud-based management of wireless access points. This way, managed services providers can compete with the likes of Aerohive and Meraki. With a tiny bit of code added to their firmware, the access point, “calls home” to the hosted service, and is then linked to a particular customer through a unique identifier. Cloud-based management is, in many ways, giving the SMB market enterprise-class features and functionality without the capital outlay associated with large scale WLAN hardware solutions.

Cisco also weighed in on cloud-managed WLAN at Interop, explaining its new system that lets enterprises manage thousands of APs across branch offices from one centralized private cloud.

The shift to software in the hardware-dominated is a logical direction as the level of agility needed in the age of virtualization will be a challenge with hardware alone. Where it goes from here will be interesting to watch.

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