SDN Is For Service Providers, White Label Is For Titans

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Software defined network (SDN) products are changing data centres, but don’t coinfuse them with White Label boxes, says Kelly Herrell

Software defined networking (SDN) is a huge change for the industry, which will redefine how data centres are built – but it’s all too easy to confuse what SDN products offer and who they are aimed at, says Brocade’s Kelly Herrell.

SDN products offer an abstraction, so that the parts of the system which make decisions about routing traffic (the control plane) are separate from those which actually handle the data (the data plane). They are reconfigurable, and an SDN controller will be able to manage multiple switches from different vendors.

Internet of things, world electronics circuit board network connection © asharkyu Shutterstock

If it ain’t Brocade…

SDN is vitally important to data centres and to the cloud, because it finally virtualises the network function, alongside the processors and storage, which have been virtualised some time back.

“The network function always brings up the tail end,” said Herrell, and this network function virtualisation (NFV) has become a major benefit for those venturing into SDN.

Herrell founded Vyatta, an open source router vendor which has achieved some 1.3 million downloads of a network switch applications designed to run on x86 hardware. Its business model developed into making proprietary products based on open source – and it was bought by Brocade in 2012.

The SDN market has settled around the OpenDaylight project, a bid under the Linux Foundation which produced its first release in February 2014, called “Hydrogen”, that includes a standard  SDN controller that will manage multiple vendors’ hardware, and Herrell approves greatly: “We can compete in layers of value above Hydrogen,” he told TechWeek at the SDN Summit in London this week.

Although OpenDaylight has plenty of members, including HP and Cisco, most are producing their own controllers. It’s early days yet, and HP says the OpenDaylight code is not yet business-grade, while Cisco has its own proprietary approach called ACI (application centric infrastructure). “No two vendors have the same strategy,” said Herrell, but he expects the open source process to produce rapidly accelerating maturity in the specifications.

SDN is for service providers

Fundamentally, he says SDN is driven by the needs of service providers to build flexible data centres. “In all my years, I’ve never seen a market segment so shrill in its demands for openness,” he told us. “They can’t afford to be locked in – they are still digging themselves out from out from under decades of lock-in.”

This message coincides, of course, with Brocade’s laujnch of a platform for service providers based on Vyatta, and branded as the “Vyatta Platform“. It includes the Vyatta vRouter, and Brocade’s vADX products, and complies with OpenDaylight, and OpenStack, as well as the NFV requirements outlined by the NFV special interest group at European standard body ETSI.

SDN is not for small or medium sized businesses (SMBs), Herrell told us, as it’s about managing complexity. And titans like Google, Facebook or Apple can take it or leave it, because they have enough engineers to design their own systems, and demand them in a no-frills “white box” format. “It’s a classic ‘build or buy’ decision,” he said. “If you’re big enough, you can always build your own.”

Because service providers are smaller, they don’t want to design hardware. While white boxes might cut out margin, that margin is stuff like service and support, which service providers need: “There is a reason that margin exists.” And that’s Brocade’s territory, he believes.

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