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Alcatel-Lucent’s SDN Strategy Downplays OpenFlow

Alcatel-Lucent has announced its SDN roadmap for the coming year. The company plans to offer a RESTful interface in two of its OmniSwitch product lines before it adds support for OpenFlow.

Alcatel-Lucent has announced its software-defined networking (SDN) strategy for 2013, but it's taking a somewhat different road than other network vendors that have announced support for the OpenFlow standard.

The company said its approach to SDN will be based on its Application Fluent Network initiative, which is built on its OmniSwitch platform. As part of its SDN strategy, the company will provide a RESTful API for its OmniSwitch 10K and OmniSwitch 6900 switches in the first half of 2013. The API will expose the CLI capabilities of the switches. The company says the interface will let enterprises connect applications, external controllers and orchestration platforms, such as OpenStack and CloudStack, to its switches.

The company said it doesn't plan to provide direct support of OpenFlow until 2014; it is focusing on the API because it sees it as delivering more benefits to enterprises in the short term. Alcatel-Lucent said its API will provide a generic interface that OpenFlow controllers can link to--if those controllers support Alcatel's interface. The company said its discussing alliances with several vendors of OpenFlow-based controllers, but declined to offer specifics.

Alcatel-Lucent's decision to hold off on OpenFlow adoption runs counter to other network vendors, including IBM and HP. For instance, IBM supports OpenFlow on a variety of its switch platforms, and this October it announced the availability of its own controller. HP said that its own home-grown controller would be available in 2013, along with two new applications designed to run in an OpenFlow environment. The company also has extensive switch support for the OpenFlow protocol. Meanwhile, the startup Big Switch Networks is going all-in with an SDN strategy built around OpenFlow and a controller architecture.

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research, saysthe definition of SDN is still up for debate, and although Alcatel-Lucent isn't going the OpenFlow route right away, the company is delivering a practical path that help enterprises get their get feet wet with SDN. He's not sure that Alcatel-Lucent's delay in supporting OpenFlow until 2014 matters. "OpenFlow is a path to SDN, but you don't have to run OpenFlow to have an SDN," he says.

Kerravala says while most enterprises are interested in SDN, they are still in the research and testing phase, and managing an SDN is challenging, especially for smaller enterprises that may not have the IT staff who can deal with the complexity.

The early days of managing an SDN are going to be complicated, in the same way that virtual servers were a challenge to manage because management tools had to adapt or be created outright, says Kerravala. "What Alcatel-Lucent is trying to avoid is that same kind of scenario, so they're focused on the APIs and the management tools, as a way to create an easier, more practical road to SDNs."

Kerravala says the company's approach to SDNs is similar to its approach to network fabrics, which includes built-in automation, so the network can recognize virtual traffic flows and be able to tune itself based on business policies. It has also built some interfaces with existing management tools to provide better visibility into what's going on in the network, he notes.

"Part of their strategy is to be able to deploy its infrastructure alongside existing network gear," says Kerravala. Unlike Cisco Systems, Alcatel-Lucent doesn't have the lion's share of infrastructure, so its products are going to have to sit alongside those of other vendors, even within its own customer base.

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