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Cisco OpenFlow: Not likely for Cisco software-defined networks

Waiting for a Cisco OpenFlow strategy? Don't get excited. It looks like Cisco is going proprietary on its software-defined networking strategy.

There are signs everywhere here at Cisco Live London this week that the company is going the software-defined networking (SDN) route, but that won't mean a Cisco OpenFlow connection.

It appears Cisco will go proprietary on its SDN strategy, and that could hamper the move toward open source software-defined networking throughout the market.

Buried about halfway through her keynote speech on Tuesday, CTO Padmasree Warrior said Cisco will make software one of its “core competencies” this year and that the company would make operating system APIs available to users for better network programmability. She stopped short of calling the strategy SDN, but made it clear that Cisco will answer the need of users who are seeking a separate network control plane that enables integrated network virtualization and automation.

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“We recognize that software is going to be the heart of [network] intelligence,” Warrior said. She also said the three Cisco operating systems Nexus-OS, XR and IOS, are now being managed in the same company division and will be “cross pollinated” for shared features (though not combined).

The changes Warrior referenced are already emerging in product form. As part of a 40 GbE and 100 GbE switching upgrade launched at Cisco Live this week, the company also announced SDN-driven network virtualization strategies. One of those is Easy Virtual Networking (EVN), a WAN segmentation technology (based on VRF-lite) that lets engineers dynamically spin up separate logical networks on a shared network. Cisco also announced SDN-related changes to its Nexus line, which include Python scripting for customized network behavior, as well as automation for data center workflows and provisioning.

When asked where these SDN technologies fit in the context of OpenFlow, Warrior said, “software-defined networking is broader than OpenFlow.”

Following up on that, Cisco VP of data center switching product management Ram Velaga said,  “OpenFlow is only one of the many [SDN] protocols that are available … at this point we don't think it's production read.”

Who cares about a Cisco OpenFlow connection?

Ironically, OpenFlow supporters believe that one of the reasons the protocol is not production ready is that it awaits the support of networking vendors that must release OpenFlow-friendly switches in order to make related controllers and applications feasible.

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It may not take a Cisco OpenFlow switch to make the protocol work, since other companies like IBM and NEC have announced OpenFlow switches and controllers. Yet without Cisco's support, it's not likely the protocol will go far.

More importantly, OpenFlow and other forms of SDN are generally open, so developers can take the code and create an ecosystem of interesting applications that could completely change the way the network is managed and even architected.

But Cisco's proprietary approach to SDN will not lead to an industry-wide movement of application development. This is not to say Cisco must embrace OpenFlow. Arista, after all, heavily relies on SDN in its Arista EOS, but the system is Linux-based and therefore open to developers and a ton of new applications.

It's still hard to know what will shake out for Cisco on the SDN front. And on a brighter note, it's possible that Cisco's software focus will lend support to the overall theory that networks must be as much about the software as they are about the hardware. In the meantime, OpenFlow supporters might want to start shaking the trees at other networking vendors for support.

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