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Understanding SDN vendor ecosystems

Ethan Banks | Sept. 10, 2014
Followers of Software Defined Networking (SDN) might recognize a sort of market maturation. We don't mean maturity of the product sets, or even how SDN is technically achieved. Those elements are still coming along. We mean vendor SDN strategies are settling in.

Part of the partner enablement strategy is OpFlex, which Cisco describes as a protocol used to express policy between network devices up and down the stack, as well as to a network controller. OpFlex is important, because Cisco has opened it to the industry as an IETF draft, meaning vendors that wish to integrate with ACI can use OpFlex. If OpFlex sees wide industry adoption, the ACI ecosystem will continue to grow. This is key to understand, as many third-party vendors believe Cisco ACI is an appropriate technology to integrate with. Why? It's hard to bet against Cisco, especially when it's clear that the ACI vision is gathering momentum.

One example of a third-party vendor that has integrated with ACI is Embrane. Embrane is an SDN startup tackling the challenge of virtual application life-cycle management. The setup, teardown and license management of virtual appliances is a complex task.

Initially a concern for cloud providers and IaaS shops, the problem has trickled down into enterprises as organizations continue to virtualize their infrastructure. Practically speaking, the tracking of hundreds or thousands of virtual appliances with transient existences must be automated. The Embrane Elastic Services Manager (ESM) does this work, and integrates with ACI while doing so.

The integration between Embrane and ACI is achieved via ESM and Cisco's APIC (Application Policy Infrastructure Controller). ESM and APIC know about each other, using bi-directional communication to make the other aware of their capabilities and state. For example, as new services are added to ESM, ESM notifies APIC so the new service is added to the ACI services catalog. The result is a virtual infrastructure that can be automatically deployed. Not only will ESM spin up and down virtual network appliances as required, it will also request network resources from APIC, such that a completely virtualized application environment will be created across the physical network infrastructure.


Big companies aren't the only ones developing ecosystems. SDN startup Plexxi has partnerships with a growing number of vendors that integrate with its controller and photonic switching environment. Plexxi's SDN logic is built around the concept of affinities, where Plexxi traffic analysis can automatically determine the requirements of traffic flows between two endpoints and implement appropriate policies across its optical backbone. Plexxi's core algorithms build an optical topology between its switches that "fit" the network requirements. This process of fitting the network based on discovered affinities can be informed directly by applications traversing the Plexxi network.

One vendor taking advantage of Plexxi affinities is SolidFire. SolidFire makes SSD storage clusters, and the storage nodes in the cluster demand a guaranteed path between them across the network infrastructure. Plexxi discovers SolidFire endpoints via a connector using a REST API that reads the SolidFire topology published in JSON format. The Plexxi controller receives this data from the connector and learns where all the SolidFire cluster members are in the network. The Plexxi controller then builds affinities between the SolidFire cluster members to guarantee their traffic flows. The result is a self-contained storage network with a guaranteed QoS without having to build a physically separate network.


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