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Interest in software defined networking (SDN) is surging. The SDN market and network virtualization enabled by SDN took a major leap in industry awareness and validation when VMware spent $1.26 billion to acquire Nicira Networks last week. That's a lot of money for a company that emerged from stealth mode a few months ago with a handful of customers. Now, new research shows that roughly 80% of global telecommunications service providers are including OpenFlow in their purchase considerations, according to results from the Infonetics Research's Global Service Provider Survey. That's a lot of budget dollars in play. These numbers mean that service providers are at the very least researching SDN technology before making infrastructure buying decisions, according to Michael Howard, co-founder and principal analyst for carrier networks at Infonetics.
"Operators are smitten by SDNs," Howard said. "I've talked to Verizon and AT&T; they're actually buying this stuff. Not a lot. It's in their labs. They're trying it out to see what works and what doesn't."
That doesn't mean operators are tossing out their existing infrastructure so fast. For now "there's a lot of hope and lot of hype," he continued, so "it's going to take a while, like any new technology."
Most SDN pioneers and startups are still developing their products and established network vendors like Cisco Systems Inc. haven't gotten past the stage of articulating an SDN strategy. Also, experts are still hashing out the use cases for SDN.
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"We need to see whether or not there is a well-defined enterprise use case for what this provides customers today," Michael Spanbauer, service director for Business Technology & Software at Current Analysis, said last week while speaking to me about the VMware-Nicira deal.
But there are a lot of potential use cases for SDN, and more emerge all the time as researchers experiment with the technology. The more pressing question is: Does SDN solve problems better than other technologies? We're still looking for answers on that one.
"It's all over the map," Howard said. "OpenFlow itself and the other SDN technologies that we've surveyed operators about are still in the formative stages."
Service providers are exploring whether SDN can help applications talk to networks and allow networks to respond to applications. Service providers think they can monetize their networks with technology like that, Howard said.
SDN also has the potential to solve operational problems in both service provider networks and data centers. It can answer the question of how you move virtual machines around the data center and how you gain more flexibility in the network? Howard said.
Although Howard is tracking SDN market interest among service providers, he expects enterprises to include the technology in their buying decisions, too, especially those enterprises with large data centers. Much of the enterprise world has focused on OpenFlow as an SDN protocol and switching and routing vendors like HP Networking, Brocade and Extreme Networks have started supporting OpenFlow on some of their hardware. This is a good first step, but only a small part of the battle.
"OpenFlow and any of these SDN protocols are like an enabler, like the syntax of how one side can talk to the other; how the application can talk to the network or how the control plane can talk to the data plane," Howard said. "It's how you can pass questions back and forth [between them]. But the content of the question and the content of the answer is where the real value lies. The syntax is worthless, except as an enabler. It's what you do with that syntax."
Nicira, for example, doesn't sell itself as an OpenFlow vendor, but rather a network virtualization company that solves operational problems using OpenFlow as a communication vehicle between the control plane and the data plane, he said.
Just as OpenFlow as a protocol was given too much hype, SDN as a means of separating the control plane and the data plane of a network in an abstracted centralized controller is also just a means to an end. The real value lives in how you innovate after you've achieved that separation. Nicira was one of the first companies to bring that innovation to market in the form of a product, and VMware paid a fortune for it. That's not to say others won't be more innovative.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director.