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SDN market predictions for New Year: NFV, OpenFlow, Open vSwitch boom

Overlays will rule the early part of the New Year in the SDN market, but OpenFlow and other hardware-based SDN will start to gain ground.

The SDN market remained more hype than reality in 2013. Many vendors announced products and strategies, but only a small number actually released products.

In 2014, SDN technology will take a big leap forward as vendors embrace the movement and engineers demand production-ready products. SearchSDN asked Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research, and Brad Casemore, research director at IDC, to share their 2014 SDN predictions.

The granddaddy: OpenFlow in 2014

Although the SDN market's hype spotlight moved away from OpenFlow this year, experts expect there to be a lot more OpenFlow-friendly network equipment available in 2014, allowing early adopters to start considering the technology in greenfield and network refresh situations.

"OpenFlow stands a chance of seeing some real advances. We'll see it move forward from a functional standpoint and a supply standpoint," Casemore said. "We'll see more merchant silicon and OEMs implementing it more extensively in their portfolios."

Casemore also expects some early OpenFlow deployments in campus networks in 2014. Most of the early OpenFlow switches were aimed at data center use cases, but some vendors have introduced OpenFlow on campus switches, most notably HP.

Open vSwitch 2.0 advances OpenFlow and overlays

Open vSwitch 2.0 came out this fall, adding multithread functionality to the increasingly popular open source virtual switch. The new version will add scalability to both OpenFlow implementations and network overlays that are based on Open vSwitch, Hanselman said.

"Many Open vSwitch implementations have struggled with the speed of instance creation -- how fast you can generate new environments. It was only the largest implementations where that was a concern, but it was something that was holding people off," Hanselman said. "Any implementation of Open vSwitch was limited by a single thread that did all the spinning up of any new functionality."

The improved scalability of Open vSwitch 2.0 will affect the numerous SDN vendors who use it as an OpenFlow agent on switches or as an endpoint in overlay technologies. These vendors include high-profile players such as VMware Inc. and startups such as Midokura and Pica8, he said.

Will data center overlays hit a wall in 2014?

Network overlays gained plenty of traction in 2013, with vendors such as VMware, Nuage Networks, Juniper Networks Inc. and Midokura all introducing products. These technologies have solved the problems of orchestrating and automating connectivity and network services in highly virtualized environments. Yet many data center operators may find the overlay-only approach challenging in the New Year, Hanselman said.

"There is a point at which the overlay is going to be constrained by the mechanics of the network underneath," Hanselman said. "The reality is we still have to manage those [physical networks]. We'll do the easy things first [with overlays], and then we'll make the transition to more sophisticated things as we have the equipment and the capital budgets to do so."

Data center operators will want the ability to do dynamic configuration and traffic management on the physical network and tie that management and control into application-layer orchestration, Hanselman said.

"We're right now in an environment where people have gotten OK at basic infrastructure orchestration or automation. You want to spin up a new server? We're great at that. You want to spin up a full-blown Web environment with authentication? There are still a bunch of things we have to do manually there," he explained.

Blurred lines: SDN market creating chaos, M&A fever

Whether SDN is a symptom or a cause, it's clear the data center industry has become much more chaotic. Vendors that were once content to own one particular niche are expanding into other markets. VMware bought Nicira and encroached on Cisco's networking turf. Cisco started selling servers, which soured its long-time partnership with Hewlett-Packard Co. HP and other networking vendors see SDN as a way to steal market share from Cisco.

"I think we'll see a lot more competition between former allies," Casemore said. "We'll see major mergers and acquisition activity, which will be somewhat related to SDN." Casemore said an IT company might acquire a large networking company in 2014, or a software company will make a networking acquisition to boost the "S in SDN."

SDN consortiums and standards bodies need common cause

The OpenDaylight Project could face some difficult challenges in 2014 because there may be too many "cooks in the kitchen," Casemore said.

"If you look at the individual vendors who are a part of it, [OpenDaylight] is not at the core of their product strategies right now. It's difficult for me to envision how that changes," he said.

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Casemore pointed to the delay of OpenDaylight's first code release, which was attributed to challenges around pulling together some of the various code contributions. That's likely to continue next year. OpenDaylight could also struggle in maintaining a common vision for the project, he said.

"Within any consortium or standards body, I ask myself is there any common cause? The Open Networking Foundation was able to make quick headway initially because telcos and hyperscale companies had a strong common cause. We're seeing that with the Open Compute Project and even surprisingly with ETSI's NFV [network functions virtualization]," Casemore said.

Network functions virtualization steams ahead

NFV, the effort to deploy appliance-based network functions and services as virtual capabilities on x86 systems, will continue to rocket ahead in 2014.

NFV has the potential to help service providers adapt quickly to changing service models, Hanselman said.

"A lot of people talk about the potential for Capex reduction. But telcos are interested in NFV because it can dramatically shorten the overall equipment provisioning cycle," he said. If you can translate things from NAT [network address translation] systems, to IMS gateways, and to whatever you want to stand up and do it all on the same x86 systems that you have already provisioned; now you have a lot of flexibility."

This flexibility will also push vendors to help providers adapt their operations support systems (OSSes) and business support systems (BSSes) to rapidly deployed services so that their business operations can keep up with the their more dynamic infrastructure.

"If you have an OSS/BSS … that is geared toward the expectation that service instantiation takes time, that's a system that isn't ready for dynamically spun-up capacity. If you can't bill users for instantaneous use, that's going to hold you back," Hanselman said. "One place where we're starting see interesting traction is among vendors who are able to provide end user-focused services and have the capability to sit alongside the OSS … and do the customer interaction piece on top of it [to allow customers] to buy premium services for an hour or day."

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Lots of good stuff here...

I suspect OpenFlow will get a boost as more controllers become available. Having gear is great, but having a commercial controller product (be it proprietary or open source) makes that gear sing. I would guess OpenDaylight helps out here, even though it shows up later in the list as something to watch out for.

I also think the comments about a dynamic network alongside overlays are spot on. I don't think the industry can get away with an either/or approach. We will need both, and that means a bit more collaboration on some of this than we have typically seen. It needs to extend beyond supporting protocols and get into more operational aspects. Visibility and reactivity will be key.

And finally, I think you are right again when you point out allies becoming foes. I think the competitive landscape will get murkier, especially if the industry continues to consolidate. I think the companies to watch here are Oracle, IBM, and Intel. The battle is bigger than just networking.

-Mike Bushong (@mbushong)