Cisco senior management has been quoted on ChannelWeb as saying that the networking market will not commoditise any time soon. Software-defined networking (SDN) is not the future, they said: “We still love hardware.” Cisco is wrong to say these things.
Here’s why. SDN is disruptive, especially to hardware vendors, for obvious reasons. Cast your mind back to when PCs and servers first appeared on the scene. We saw a shift away from hardware-based mainframes to low-cost hardware and all the value being in the software. We are starting to see this again with SDN, and this time the change is coming for the network.
The best way to understand SDN and its impact is to look at what I call hardware-defined networking (HDN). Consider HDN as an entire industry organised around boxes for different functions: firewalls, load balancers, switches and routers. Look under the cover and the hardware is similar. The potential for differentiation is in the software.
Right now the networking industry is organised along black-box lines. Now imagine a network white box, where businesses can use one box to fulfil countless functions through the use of software.
Consider for a moment the possibilities, and let’s take an SMB as an example. This SMB has a small firewall, a small router, and a small load balancer all sitting there as black boxes on the network. So they’re paying three times for hardware. Why can’t they just have intelligent software on one network whitebox to fulfil all those hardware functions?
This isn’t a fairytale, this is possible today. And it goes beyond being just a technology story, also making economic and business sense. Companies can use open standards to programme remotely in real time and turn a single white box into a switch, a firewall, a router and a load balancer in one. This can be reprogrammed to perform some other role in about an hour.
SDN is really a market correction, where the centre of value is shifting from hardware to software. This will bring the networking industry in line with changes we have seen in the server industry over the years. But Cisco’s comments suggest that vendors are far from ready to focus on software in this way.
I have always been an outsider with these views, even though I believe that we have a healthy business. I think SDN is both inevitable and natural, and I have been saying it for 10 years now.
The entire networking industry is approaching a turning point. The exact timings are hard to predict, but this market correction is happening now, and when it goes mainstream, more change will come about very quickly. This will transform the habits of vendors, consumers, and the channel. Meanwhile, resellers should focus on how they can help their customers prepare for the arrival of SDN.
Companies that listen to customer needs, and think about how SDN could evolve to meet future network demand – as opposed to capitalising on the quicker sales in expensive hardware – are the ones that will drive value longer term.
Stuart Bailey is founder and chief technology officer at Infoblox
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