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Open Networking: The Whale that swallowed SDN

Art Fewell | June 18, 2014
SDN and networking conversations today have become overloaded with hype. The future is no longer just about one approach to SDN but has become much bigger. Welcome to the Open Networking Revolution.

The New SD(lock)N
Today as many leading network technology providers are leveraging their immense power to drive support for their own closed SDN ecosystems, the industry and enterprises in particular stand at risk of being more locked-in to vendor technologies than ever. The burgeoning open and independent networking software ecosystem seems likely to be subverted into isolated pockets that will only work within vendor-specific ecosystems.

When server hardware is purchased, the owner is free to invest in software that is independent from hardware. I can purchase Microsoft exchange, and that does not create a business dependency on Dell Hardware or any specific hypervisor for example (Disclaimer I work for Dell, but the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Dell). This paradigm is responsible for the emergence and massive growth of the independent software market and the vast sea of new business solutions that only became available as a direct result of the accessibility and economics created by open computing.

Yet if we look at emerging SDN and NFV ecosystems, it appears that application development will flow along vendor lines. Cisco and VMware for example are building comprehensive self-contained SDN/NFV ecosystems that are clearly separate and distinct. Unlike x86 where an investment in software does not create a dependency on an underlying hardware (or virtual hardware) provider, each ongoing investment into these ecosystems can create compounding dependencies on the platform provider, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to move between providers, diminishing their bargaining leverage and purchasing power.

Using OpenFlow or other open protocols does not inherently mean that these solutions will be any more open or interoperable than any legacy solutions. We can see emerging SDN ecosystems that leverage OpenFlow yet still require that applications be built specifically to work within a closed application ecosystem. Or in the case of companies like HP that have built customized OpenFlow-based ecosystems, extensive use of proprietary frameworks and custom extensions create the net effect of applications that will only work within vendor-specific ecosystems.

We Deserve Better
While many of us have come to believe that all this SDN stuff is just inherently more open, it seems clear that many leading enterprise SDN solutions will not deliver software that is free from dependence upon a specific physical/virtual infrastructure provider.

The deal that several leading SDN/NFV solutions offer is what looks like a step in the right direction. However this step would require consumers to invest heavily into closed vendor ecosystems and trust that there will hopefully be some answer to the lock-in and closed ecosystems eventually just trust us' echoes the common vendor refrain.


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