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Interop reporter's notebook: SDN vendors talk OpenFlow, hybrid SDN

We spoke with five vendors at Interop who share their approach to and definition of SDN as it relates to OpenFlow, hypervisor and legacy views.

SDN was front and center during Interop Las Vegas last week. During the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with five SDN vendors to hear how they'll tackle that technology.

1. Dell. During my briefing with Dell, Arpit Joshipura, head of product management and marketing, explained that the SDN market is fragmented into three camps: the legacy players, the hypervisor folks and the "purists" -- those who equate OpenFlow with SDN. There are issues with each group, he said. For starters, the legacy camp -- which hopes to maintain legacy hardware with a few open application programming interfaces -- is proprietary and closed, "which people don't want," he said. The hypervisor "virtual world" isn't connected with the physical world, so those folks don't know the physical infrastructure and assume it's there and functioning decently (you know what they say about assuming). The issue with purist OpenFlow-only players is, "Where do you find it?"

With that, Joshipura explained how Dell approaches the SDN market, which is with what he called a "hybrid migration strategy" that he said is unlike any other. The product interoperates with the Cisco legacy control plane, for example, as well as with all the hypervisors and their applications. Dell has OpenFlow running inside the switch, which can be controlled by as many as six controllers. That means "VMware, Nicira, Big Switch [can] do SDN so they aren't upsetting mainstream data centers; they can do multi-tenancies," he said. At the end of the day, he added, customers simply want the things that help them migrate. "They want flexibility," he said.

Dell also is a member of the OpenDaylight Consortium, and the company has formed a chair subcommittee under the Object Management Group.

2. Alcatel-Lucent. I sat down with Alcatel's Heitor Faroni, director of solutions marketing in the network business division, and Subash Bohra, product line manager in the same division. According to them, the SDN vendor has the vision that "the network needs to be aware of the applications, or the traffic that's flowing, and use that information to provide the best user experiences," Faroni said. To do this, three sets of information need to be collected: an understanding of who the user is, which device he's working with, and the nature of the application. "Based on that, we need to bring automation to the network," he said. It's essential that the network is able to adjust, especially in such a mobile environment, "and we have a more dynamic network," he added. "The problem we want to solve is the understanding of applications and automation of the network, so it becomes more simple for IT and for the network to be operated. If you think about it, this is the problem SDN is trying to solve."

Bohra added that Alcatel doesn't require customers to rip out their infrastructure to build SDN: "Our existing network can overlay the SDN to provide automation and a single plane of management." This is true for both wired and wireless in the…campus center, he said. "You can have a centralized control plane and optimize the network paths for optimized delivery of services on the fabric," he added. Everything is restored on the fabric from the data plane standpoint, he said, while the control plane manages the policy enforcement and onboarding for wire and wireless layers.

I liked Dell's explanation of the "three camps," so I decided to test the theory with the other SDN vendors. When I asked the Alcatel reps which camp the company falls into – and whether that statement is even true -- they echoed Dell. "It's a combination of all," Bohra said. "You can't say one thing will do it, or one is a solution for all. You have to play the SDN on the legacy infrastructure, and you need to bring them in and optimize the existing paths." It's about maximizing the existing infrastructure for SDN and still providing a centralized control plane, he said.

Alcatel offers what it calls a "hybrid approach," and going to a completely OpenFlow-based model (like the purists) "requires you to remove existing infrastructure, and I don't think that's the right approach for solving the SDN problem," Bohra said. "OpenFlow is just a piece of SDN. Calling OpenFlow 'SDN' -- it's really incorrect. And from a hypervisor standpoint, they've brought in the server virtualization aspect of it, so we're trying to do the same thing within the SDN scope. We want to bring virtualization into the networking aspect of it," he said.

3. Enterasys. I ended up venturing out onto the expo floor to find Enterasys after hearing the buzz about its new SDN solution, which integrates with partners to provide predefined applications. After a demo of the solution from Steve Doe, who does solutions engineering for the company, I posed my "three camps" question to Ali Kafel, its director of product marketing. Enterasys takes a hybrid approach. "People are confusing OpenFlow with SDN," he said. "So, we believe SDN is a really great architecture that provides business agility so the network can be programmable." These so-called purists, he said, are saying OpenFlow is how you separate the control and data. "We believe OpenFlow isn't quite mature right now. There are things missing, so that's a challenge. And the data switch itself…we don't think using software or commodity hardware is going to scale."

Enterasys places more emphasis on the northbound side, despite the fact that there's been so much emphasis on the southbound part of the equation, Kafel said. He believes that one of the "unique" things about the Enterasys infrastructure is its integration with third parties and applications. "We believe that's the true value of SDN: the flexibility and programmability," he said. "No other [SDN] vendor has had the type of integration we've had -- I say that boldly, and you smile," he said, after noticing I had, indeed, started to chuckle. After showing me a list of Enterasys partners, which includes VMware and AirWatch, he added that Enterasys' solution is not just within the data center, but also on the campus network.

4. Freescale Semiconductor. I'll admit, I hadn't heard of Freescale Semiconductor, and probably wouldn't have wandered over to the booth if it hadn't been for two gentlemen who helped me find my way to the expo on the first day of the conference. However, after speaking with Pravin Kantak, marketing manager for the company's software products, I'm glad I did. Freescale offers SDN and network function virtualization technologies integrated with the OpenStack Cloud OS platform, and it was the first company to identify itself as a "purist" when I again posed my "three camps" question. According to Kantak, companies like Cisco and Juniper have become successful by doing vertical integration and driving a monopoly. "And if not a monopoly, then a good customer base," he said. But the movement has started, he continued, with customers becoming wiser and knowing what they need -- something that's programmable and fits their needs.

"They say, 'Cisco doesn't understand my needs. I do,'" Kantak said. "'I need something I can program and work for me -- that's where the [Open Networking Foundation] has found that synergy, and OpenFlow -- that's the real SDN," he said. "There are people who are trying to do SDN washing, and [saying,] 'I already have the investment, how can I position it, and oh, this is SDN,' but in reality, it's not."

Upon hearing that, I flat-out asked Kantak if he believes SDN to be as the "purists" see it, and he answered yes: "That idea is going to solve the problem and drive disruption in the market place, as opposed to Cisco and Juniper doing SDN." I also asked if Freescale was part of the OpenDaylight Consortium. "Not yet," he said, but added that if the consortium becomes successful in taking a third-party perspective, "they will stay commercial and there will be a pecking order on what Cisco says and what Juniper says. It needs to be seen how programmable they [can be]."

5. Cisco. Oh, Cisco. As a newbie to Interop, I admittedly was nervous to be ushered into a private room and greeted by a very perky Lauren Cooney, senior director of software strategies and partnerships. I sat through a very in-depth half-hour presentation, where she outlined Cisco's offerings -- or what she called Cisco's open networking environment portfolio.

To sum it up, she said that multiple customers have come to the company and said they need help opening up interfaces to get information out of the network and abstraction layers so they can build applications. "Now, that has network intelligence built in," she said. "It's attaching a tool to automate and orchestrate the network in a more scalable way." Historically, she continued, people have built applications box by box. "Now…you can build that application once and run it across the network," she said. "In addition, you can run it on your legacy equipment, or on cloud, or on Rackspace or Amazon."

"So, you write that application once and run it anywhere, Cooney continued. And the reason why Cisco can do this is because we have the install base, regardless of what anyone else says."

Before Cooney began explaining Cisco's offerings, though, I, of course, threw out my "three camps" question. I had explained my background was within health IT coverage, so that's where she began. "Coming from your background, everything was service-oriented architecture," she said. "It was all service-oriented something, but now, everything is software-defined something. When you look at it, it's an architecture that solves a problem for your business."

SDN, essentially, is using new software techniques and maximizing data you currently have inside the network, Cooney continued. "That's the simplest way I can describe it," she said. "I meet with customers and someone says, 'This is a Diet Coke,' and someone else says, 'This is a Diet Pepsi,' and they work at the same company….you hear multiple definitions across the board. You can't say, 'This is software-defined networking.' There may be many different camps, but one of the things we do at Cisco is, we have different customers and different verticals, and different areas where we help customers solve big problems."

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