Is Cisco’s ‘SDN plus’ the best software-defined networking?

The networking giant has been accused of not embracing software-defined networking, but Cisco claims it offers better SDN than its competitors.

Despite claims Cisco is being protectionist in its approach to software-defined networking (SDN), the firm has continued to tout its offerings as the right approach over its competitors.

The networking giant has been playing a large role in the growing open source community around SDN, taking its place at the table of the Open Networking Group, the Open Networking Foundation and the Open Daylight project.

Most of the companies involved believe software for controlling the network should be hardware agnostic so it can run on any white-label networking equipment and still give a superior performance.

This, of course, threatens Cisco’s dominance in the hardware space, which it has held for many years, as the particular features it offers at a higher price point may not be needed to get the same effect from SDN systems.

However, at its annual Cisco Live conference in Milan this week, the firm added to its own line-up of products and said getting the full suite of both hardware and software from the one provider would offer a stronger solution than the "best software, any hardware" approach.

Cisco extols its plus points

Rob Lloyd, president of development and sales at Cisco, said: “You can use Open Daylight, which is an open approach to the controller, but you don’t get the SDN plus. The ‘plus’ is the policy profile, the ‘plus’ is the automatic scripting model that allows us to tie those things together, and the ‘plus’ is the integration with the combination of merchant and Cisco ASICs that allow us to scale.

“I know there are connectivity methods to other switches that will be in generic forms of SDN, but we believe that incremental value, telemetry, visibility and trouble shooting is made available by APIC, and the uniqueness of the 'one' policy [Cisco’s SDN offerings] will set it aside.”

Even with Cisco’s involvement with open projects, Lloyd was still happy to exclaim his firm’s products as superior.

“We have seen that generic SDN has gone to an open development environment,” he added. “The early entries of startups that have come along with SDN in the past month or six weeks have completely changed their business model as they don’t know what they are going to sell.

“In this model, open is open, and it is open communities developing these technologies. We think open development is a great thing. But at some stage, when you take the innovations that we are bringing and you embed them in the underlying platform for scale, performance and security, then I think that is going to be the model that works in many SDN use cases.” 

Zeus Kerravala, founder of and analyst at ZK Research, said open standards and the open development behind them were key to SDN, but implementing it with the hardware as part of the solution, like Cisco has, would lead to a stronger product.

You can use Open Daylight which is an open approach to the controller, but you don’t get the SDN plus

Rob Lloyd, Cisco

“I think you will see this industry evolve like you would see other networking technologies evolve. The standards can drive a certain level of functionality, but to get a lot of the advanced functionality, a company like Cisco and a lot of vendors will add functionality to the pot.

“Then as the standard evolves, more and more will be added to the standard. That is how SIP evolved or MPLS evolved and things like that. It is very typical.”

But Keith Humphreys, management consultant at EuroLAN research, warned that too many standards bodies, with the addition of separate strategies by large firms such as Cisco, could hamper the adoption of SDN.

“While de facto standards will often win over de jure standards, Cisco has the Open Networking Group and is part of Open Networking Foundation and Open Daylight,” he said.

“Only brave companies have adopted SDN – companies like Google and Deutsche Telekom and Facebook with its Open Compute Project – and too many standards will only serve to confuse the customer.”

Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst firm Quocirca, was more critical of Cisco, saying it was sticking to its guns to look after itself.

"This is standard Cisco," he said. "Look at a standard, offer a level of support for it, but add enough 'extras' in so that you only get full value by going pure Cisco wall-to-wall."

However, Longbottom believed with any type of software-defined technology, a hybrid approach would be the end result, giving Cisco’s rivals a way in.

“Certain high-level functions will be abstracted to software and should be 100% standardised across any equipment,” he said. “Then some ‘smarts’ will need to stay down in the silicon, as coming up from silicon to software and then going back again will add too much latency into some packets for it to work.

“This will be where switch and other network equipment suppliers should still differentiate themselves.”

Longbottom concluded: “Cisco has some good stuff with APIC, but it really should be looking at how it can get this into the base level of OpenFlow and try to drive towards a higher fidelity of standardisation across a heterogeneous network estate, rather than still being protective towards its own hardware.”

SDN adoption will only rise after successful trials

All of these conversations may be somewhat pre-emptive, however, as very few customers are getting on-board with SDN.

This is standard Cisco; look at a standard, offer a level of support for it, but add enough 'extras' in so that you only get full value by going pure Cisco wall-to-wall

Clive Longbottom, Quocirca

Computer Weekly’s own European research showed customers were still holding back from deploying SDN systems, with just 9% of respondents planning to put the technology into practice in the next 12 months – the same percentage that were looking to embrace the technology at the start of 2013. This figure fell even lower, to just under 6%, when talking exclusively to UK companies.

Joe Skorupa, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said he was unsurprised by the figures, as the reality is that SDN products are only just getting into the market, but criticised Cisco’s approach as “anti-SDN”.

“You have the likes of HP which has products out in beta, NEC working with large carriers in the early phases in Japan, Alcatel-Lucent just [starting out], and Cisco has no SDN, or even an anti-SDN product it is beginning to ship, making its own 7700 series obsolete,” he said.

“There are only a handful of companies shipping small amounts of these products and, even then, it will take months to qualify them within real enterprise environments.”

The analyst believed SDN would not see much momentum until next year, but only if these early adopters, as referred to by Humphreys, show successful implementations.

“We will see adoption ramp up in 2015, but only if the trials and early productions are successful,” added Skorupa. “Things always work in the labs, but it isn’t until you get things out in the wild and customers do things with the kit that the vendors can only imagine that you really know how well it works. You just cannot replicate that in vendor testing.”

In the meantime, though, Cisco will continue to state its own version of SDN is the best bet for businesses.

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