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Posted by on Mar 31, 2014 in Networking, Opinion | 0 comments

Evolution of the Network with SDN

A few years from now I expect that you will not hear the term “Software Defined Networking” that much. To us it will just be “networking.” Similar to how the term “Big Data” will probably just be “Data” at some point. That’s how evolution in the IT industry works, the buzz word or concept of today can become the industry standard of tomorrow.

In the history of computer science, it is also apparent that software always wins. What is defined in hardware in the beginning will eventually give way to an industry standard interface that software will then be responsible for managing. This is not a new or surprising concept in most IT silos. However networking is certainly the last remaining “ivory tower” to evolve in this manner.

That is changing.

Lets step back and take a look at compute for a moment. I recently had the opportunity to meet with HP’s Deepak Munjal. He is the leading technical SME for HP’s SDN initiative. He made a very interesting comparison with what is happening in the networking world today (with regards to SDN) and what happened to the old proprietary big-iron computer systems of the ’80s and ’90s, when they gave way to the industry standard x86 architecture. Those who didn’t adapt (ie: Sun) died.

I agree completely with his comparison. You can see exactly what happened to those old custom RISC systems with the onset of x86, is happening to the networking vendors and their proprietary ASICs giving way to a more industry standard platform like Broadcom. Even Cisco has products in their catalog based on Broadcom. You will certainly see this evolution continue. In fact it was announced today that Arista networks, a prominent rival to Cisco, just filed for an IPO. Arista gear is all based on merchant silicon (Broadcom) instead of proprietary ASIC.

Now enter SDN. If I have a standardized chipset, and I can decide on a standardized control mechanism (ie: OpenFlow), then I really don’t care whose logo is on the front bezel of my device. That device becomes a dumb appliance with a bunch of ports sitting at the top of my rack. You want it to act as a switch? Your controller sends a set of OpenFlow instructions to program it as such. You want it to be a router, firewall, load balancer, et al? Same concept. You want it to do a bit of everything? Fine. The device is dumb. Its purpose is to pass packets. The controller tells it how to do that.

This is where networking is going with SDN. It is the same natural evolution that occurred in compute time and time again for decades. And those vendors that don’t adapt will eventually go away.

SDN is absolutely organizationally disruptive. So be it. That is not a bad thing. VMware changed the IT world with virtualization in 2003, and we had the same discussions about separation of duties back then. Today it is commonplace. This is why SDN is so disruptive.  Networking is an ivory tower. There is normally very little blending between the VM guys (and gals) and the network team. I can spin up a VM in minutes, and depending on my network requirements, it may take days or weeks to get the appropriate infrastructure in place from the networking team. This is the classic IT impedance mismatch.

What if I could provision (or de-provision) those virtual or physical network services on the fly? What if I could do the same for storage?

In fact, SDN is such a big deal here, and such an important part of the software defined datacenter, that I would not be surprised in the least to see a new certification path from VMware all the way up to VCDX around NSX.

The software defined datacenter eliminates traditional IT silos. As a VM guy, I need to have a strong understanding of advanced networking concepts. I also need to know a good deal about storage. As a cloud guy, I need to be very familiar with scripting and automation on top of all of this.

Separation of duties = IT silos.
IT silos != SDDC.

This is the world we live in. IT is an ever-changing profession. And as the technology evolves, so must the skill-sets of the IT professionals. This is an adapt or die career, and to be successful you must be comfortable with that. This is true no matter what traditional IT silo you primarily work in. It is certainly more true now than ever before for networking folks. 

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