Cisco is missing the transition to software-defined networks

Little doubt remains that the future of networking will be defined by software, but market-watchers warn Cisco is missing this move

Little doubt remains that the future of networking will be defined by software, but market-watchers warn Cisco is missing this move.

Cisco’s hardware forms the backbone of most enterprise networks around the world. But this world is changing and many buyers no longer see compute, storage and networking as distinct silos.

The demise of this era has been hastened not only by the cloud, but by big data, mobile and social media.

The future of networking is unknown, but little doubt remains that it will be defined by software, and market-watchers say this is a transition that Cisco, with its vast worldwide estate and vested interests, is missing.

Network buyers should think about how big suppliers protect their vested interests when considering buying a network solution from one of them – whether that supplier is Cisco, HP, Juniper, Avaya or a similar-sized operation.

Advocates of a new approach to networking say the basic architecture has not changed since the early 1990s, and it is unrealistic for this to continue. In a recent blog post, Dell’Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel wrote that every dollar of revenue earned by an incumbent network supplier will have to be earned all over again as customers move away from their solutions and decide that upgrading speeds no longer counts as upgrading their network.

It is perhaps unsurprising that more and more buyers are starting to inspect alternative suppliers. Gartner research director Andrew Lerner says tyre-kicking is an apt metaphor for software-defined networks in the mainstream. He says people are interested but, at a session in the US in June 2014, analysts found many were waiting for increased marketing around the concept from the legacy network owners, especially Cisco.

The real movement will come when networking specialists controlling budgets start getting questions from elsewhere in their organisation on why their demands cannot be supported, says Gartner. However, for those willing or even keen to look beyond the big suppliers, there are options.

JetNexus aids London taxi firm Addison lee

London-based taxi firm Addison Lee picked jetNexus to assist with its migration from Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010. The firm, which carries 10 million customers a year and has more than 3,500 vehicles in its fleet, needed a cost-effective load-balancing solution to help mitigate the demands placed on its network.

Having deployed jetNexus load balancers to support its booking system, the firm used this existing relationship to install two accelerating load balancers (ALB-X) in its north London datacentre. The ALB-X appliances can be configured for an Exchange environment in minutes using jetNexus’s jetPACK deployment template. Addison Lee reported a reliable Exchange 2010 deployment, with its servers remaining online throughout the process. Since its deployment, the company says it has been able to easily scale its load balancing requirements thanks to the ALB‑X’s unlimited throughput.

Addison Lee senior IT support, Ian Reeves, said: "JetNexus is unrestricted on throughput which is key for us, as it will enable us to expand our requirements both quickly and cost-effectively."

Catching the transition early

Software-defined networking (SDN) company Plexxi, which recently appointed former EMC executive Richard Napolitano as its CEO, is one such company looking at the networking industry’s transition from networking towards an application and data-focused world.

"We stand today at a transition point in the IT landscape," says Napolitano. "This transformation will upend the networking industry as we know it and affect how businesses operate for decades to come. Plexxi has helped define ‘what’s next’ in networking."

Dave Husak, who set up Plexxi, knows full well how legacy networks are being overhauled by new technology. He virtually invented the modern switching market in the late 1980s as an engineer at Synernetics, which installed the first switched Ethernet networks in the world, and was later sold to 3Com, now HP Networking.

"The genesis of Plexxi came in 2009 when I found myself doing projects in big datacentres and seeing loads of legacy hardware," says Husak.

"I was deeply involved in virtualised computing infrastructure and early-stage big data internet of things projects, and seeing all this hardware gave me an entrepreneurial tingle because, since the dot com bubble burst, the level of investment and innovation in enterprise datacentre networking was essentially zero.

"Cisco had won it all, and was innovating in Flip [its now defunct consumer video line] and video-conferencing, so it could build demand for obsolete networks," he says.

The venture capital-backed startup believes layering SDN solutions on top of legacy hardware fails to address the real problems facing the network. By combining its SDN software with streamlined hardware using scale-out optical multiplexing, the company says it can help customers throw out physical cabling, switch hierarchies and “finicky” distributed protocols, and replace them with a more "elegant" system.

Plexxi says its technology can transform the performance of cloud datacentre networking by building a horizontal network where all of the value is attributed to application needs. It focuses on three market solutions: agile datacentres, scale-out application infrastructure and distributed clouds – all three areas coming together to create, in the supplier’s terms, an "optimised network that dynamically helps applications perform better".

White box and bare metal switches

SDN firm Pica8 claims to have more than 300 customers, including many cloud service providers. The company has based its approach to the network around white box-switching hardware, loaded with its own customisable Linux-based PicOS network operating system.

It claims that by using generic switches it can substantially undercut Cisco’s pricing, and give its customers a far more flexible network infrastructure.

Big Switch Networks is another supplier deploying SDN technology at a low price point by taking advantage of bare metal switches. Dubbed Big Cloud Fabric, it claims its flagship product is one of the industry’s most advanced SDN switching fabrics, and is being used to run private cloud, big data and virtual desktop deployments.

Big Cloud uses the firm’s own Switch Light technology in the data plane to share the same codebase and operational model across physical hardware platforms and hypervisors. When coupled with a centralised SDN controller, Big Switch says it can reduce network operation costs and make central provisioning, automation and troubleshooting far less time-consuming.

Its Big Tap Monitoring Fabric uses high-performance bare metal Ethernet switching to tap traffic from within the network and deliver it to security, troubleshooting, network-monitoring and application performance-monitoring tools.

Driving value from what you have

Network challengers are not confined to the West Coast of the US. Load balancing specialist jetNexus is based in the UK and, although the company works more specifically in the load balancing space, it still has a role to play in this new world of networks by helping customers optimise and extract more value from existing infrastructure. It is a use case for new approaches to networking that could be an easy first step for someone inspecting software-based networks, but it has not yet worked up to a full, ground-up rebuild.

"Typically, you find our market is dominated by one or two suppliers. We’ve come into the market to be a disruptive player for customers looking to drive more value from what they are purchasing," says jetNexus CEO, Jim DeHaven. "By offering a software-based solution at a more palatable price tag we can serve a bigger piece of the market.

"Traditionally, load balancing was for high-end service providers and enterprises but we can now bring functionality to the commercial and mid-market space, who have been priced out of the market by expensive hardware solutions.

"We see the big players are moving to horizontal markets to justify their model of expensive, proprietary hardware," says DeHaven.

This strategy seems to be helping, which has made gains in enterprise, middle market and even public sector networks in the UK and US.

"We have large banking customers but we are also driving into councils, the NHS, gaming, retail. SDN gives us access to a broader section of the market," says DeHaven.

This was first published in December 2014

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