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Cisco's software-defined networking plans could soon be impacted

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April 20, 2017

In today's rapidly changing IT industry, decisions from rivals sometimes happen that you never thought would, right out of the blue. Such decisions could have a serious negative impact and derail another company's plans.

That's today's market reality, and Cisco now seems to find itself in a similar position.

Case in point: VMware's recent decision to block third-party virtual switches on its platform could put a serious dent in Cisco's strategy for Software-Defined Networking (SDN) products in the short term.

And the top executives at Cisco never saw that one coming. What does this decision mean for enterprise customers who don't buy into VMware's NSX vision, but prefer the more hardware-centric SDN exemplified by Cisco's ACI? Well there are more than one explanation since things are a bit more complicated.

First, in order to fully understand what the lack of third-party virtual switches could mean to the IT industry as a whole, we need to first understand the major approaches to SDN.

For starters, in its most basic element, SDN is about managing various and sometimes complex network configurations across multiple devices, and sometimes over large distances.

In the old days, when network admins wanted to configure VLANs, ACLs and other networking configurations, they would have to log in to each switch, make a parameter change and then commit that change to the system.

As a general rule, networking vendors usually don't like anything that's too easy to use, so that some admins would have to employ higher-level network engineers that could help them.

This worked well for rich and big corporations when the number of workloads was smaller in the old days. When the number of workloads skyrocketed all of a sudden, so too did the number of network change requests and the overall complexity of the various designs.

Additionally, simply modifying individual networking devices didn't work either, so admins needed to make various changes from a single location that could affect any device on the network.

They also needed to be able to disseminate modifications throughout the entire network fabric quickly and reliably.

SDN types call this separating the control plane from the data plane, in other words, centralizing the bit that tells switches and routers where data flows should go from the actual devices that make the data flows go to that place, and so on and so forth.

The three big approaches are hardware-dominant (the approach taken by Cisco among others), software dominant, and hybrid. Such is the potential that technology researchers at IDC assert that SDN will be worth nearly $12 billion to the industry in less than three years from now.

And impressively, VMware is already making a billion dollars a year on it. It looks like Cisco is losing out on a great business opportunity.

In today's hardware-centric world, network functions are obviously provided by hardware. You have physical routers, physical intrusion detection systems, ect. DHCP, DNS, various tunnels and other basic network functions are provided by devices in your physical network fabric.

In the software-centric world (SDN) we have Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), and all these network services are provided by virtual machines (VMs).

If a workload requests specific network services, it sends packets out to the physical network, and the physical network takes care of them. This is true even if the other workload (s) being communicated with are on the same physical host.

In a software networking environment, (SDN) network services are provided on each host, sparing the utilization of physical network resources for journeys that don't leave the same host, but consuming some resources on each host to accomplish the same task.

Then you have hybrid systems, which are far more focused on "utilize what you already have rather than adding more". They tend to put lower-impact services such as DHCP and DNS in the physical layer and keep higher volume services such as routing in the host itself.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, but different hybrid solutions will use different services in different places. It's the nature of the beast.

From a basic standpoint that's currently used by many network admins in various landscapes, hardware-centric SDN is all about extending the control of network managers right to the virtual machine in an easy to utilize manner.

Most of the time, software-centric SDN is about eliminating the need for network administrators altogether by giving control over the network to virtual administrators.

But at the same time, software-centric SDN doesn't really need the co-operation of the hardware switching fabric. It can force SDN with enough tunnels. The price for this is often network latency-- hardware acceleration is useful, especially when talking about layer 2 extensibility across various hosts.

And hybrid systems directly target that ideal concept where we have a single control plane that managed both physical switches and virtual switches in one fell swoop.

The good news is, when it works correctly, it works great. Potential issues are that large customers rely almost exclusively on Cisco and VMware, and they aren't interested in the open-source switches and open-source hypervisors with freely-available management software that's needed to make hybrid SDN actually work.

There's no question that VMware's decision is a bold and agressive move, according to some industry observers. It will be interesting to see how Cisco comes out of this, and the actions it will soon take in defending it's market share.

Source: VMware.

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