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Editor's note: This article on whether to buy programmable network technology and services from SDN startups is one of a series on SDN investment considerations. The other pieces in the series examine the importance of defining your organization's operational needs before investing and key questions to ask SDN vendors when evaluating their product.
Adding software-defined capabilities to a network isn't as simple as racking a controller and booting up some nifty applications. Instead, there's a process involved in bringing a controller in and having it learn your existing topology, or in some cases, bringing up new SDN-capable hardware alongside your legacy network.
Because the SDN onboarding process can be so complex, the role of the vendor in implementation is extremely important. Users need SDN vendors with support engineers who understand integration and migration. With that in mind, it's important for users to consider buying programmable network technology and services from younger SDN startups in addition to hearing what their traditional network vendors have to offer.
Regardless of whether you're working with an SDN startup or a traditional vendor, the provider should be able to describe exactly how its SDN product set will fit into your existing network. The vendor should have a solid understanding of your existing network and operations. Without that understanding, the vendor's description of the onboarding process will be general, at best. Make sure the IT engineering teams buy in to the vendor's promises. Until then, maintain a healthy skepticism. The best way to get beyond that skepticism and gain the buy-in you're looking for is with a hands-on product demonstration.
Why SDN startups matter
SDN has spawned a number of startups with promising technology. The reason for this is that innovation can be harder to come by in the larger, established vendors. The bureaucracy of an established vendor often burdens development teams and can make it nearly impossible to lead with technology that is truly new and different. In addition, large vendors have a customary business model to sustain and shareholders to satisfy each and every quarter. For example, its bottom line is impacted by its ability to push network hardware out the door. Therefore, the SDN strategy focuses on adding new capabilities to that hardware, as that's the least disruptive way to satisfy market demand for SDN without disrupting hardware sales.
Startup companies have no such inertia. Startups specializing in SDN have exercised their freedom to think about networking in unusual ways and release products that are genuinely new and different. The startups are definitely leading the way when it comes to networking innovation.
What to ask SDN startups
Dealing with any IT startup is a risk, but it's one that you can take the edge off of with some common sense. For example:
- Find out how the SDN startup is funded. Specifically, you want to know how much funding it has, how long it will last and who the investors are. Large vendors funding rapid technology development outside of their bureaucracy makes for a startup that's potentially better positioned for the long-term than one funded by impatient venture capitalists looking for a quick return. You'll find both types in the SDN space.
- Make sure that the product's value proposition is a unique one. Some startups are copycats, or at the very least are developing their big idea in parallel with another vendor's similar big idea. If a group of vendors all have the same big idea, that gives the idea some merit. But it might also mean that the market isn't big enough for all of those similar products to survive. There is no right answer here, but you might do best with the startup that has the most partnerships, as that implies a certain confidence on the part of the networking industry.
- Consider the ability of established vendors to squeeze out the startups. A startup's great SDN idea, if not highly patentable, could be copied by larger vendors. If that happens, where does that leave the startup? Dead in the water if there aren't enough customers to keep the doors open. Is that a concern for your business? With SDN, a shuttered startup is a notable risk because SDN is such a rapidly growing technology. If a startup goes out of business, its product is likely to stagnate quickly, meaning that what was once an innovation enabler becomes an innovation bottleneck for your network. That would force a transition to another vendor, with all the accompanying Capex and Opex disruptions that go along with it.
- On the other hand, SDN startups are being purchased by established vendors. In the case of SDN, this is already happening. For example, VMware bought Nicira, Cisco bought Cariden, Juniper bought Contrail and Brocade bought Vyatta. This trend points to the fact that good SDN products are likely, if not guaranteed, to survive, somewhat reducing the risk to the customer looking at startups.
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, is a hands-on networking practitioner who has designed, built and maintained networks for higher education, state government, financial institutions and technology corporations. Banks has also been a host of the Packet Pushers Podcast, a technical program that covers practical network design as well as cutting-edge topics like virtualization, OpenFlow, software-defined networking and overlay protocols. He is the editor for the independent community of bloggers at PacketPushers.net and can be followed @ecbanks.
In the next part of this series, read about how SDN investment will affect networking employees.