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Juniper's SDN Strategy Looks Beyond OpenFlow

Juniper gets SDN religion, but as the company outlined its tenets, it's clear Juniper doesn't hew to the OpenFlow orthodoxy.

Herein lies the challenge of SDN to the big incumbent network equipment vendors, who have grown used to years of 20% profit margins and fat annual product maintenance fees. By converting networking from a hardware-to a software-centric environment, where more of the value and product differentiation is in easily portable code running in a virtualized private cloud, it's disruptive to the core.

Every Silicon Valley exec is acutely aware of what commodity hardware and operating software in the form of x86 CPUs and the open source catalog--from Linux and Apache to MySQL and Hadoop--have done to the server market. No one wants to be the next DEC, Sun or SGI. This explains why, conceptually at least, the SDN strategies of Cisco and Juniper have a lot in common. Both want to do as little damage to their switching and routing cash cows, while at the same time not utterly ignoring what Muglia himself called "one of the biggest things we will ever see." Hence, the emphasis on higher-level network services, management and custom hardware like Juniper's programmable Trio ASICs, not new ways of wiring and controlling data center fabrics.

Indeed, the hallmarks of Juniper's strategy are at the application and management layers, where Muglia described a suite of virtualized network services, centrally controlled and orchestrated into what he terms an "SDN service chain" using standard APIs and protocols. It's a concept that's already given rise to a new buzzword: network function virtualization (NFV). Yet what's still unclear is how Juniper intends to integrate this notion of virtual network appliances assembled like so many Unix commands piped together, with L2/3 features like vSwitches and OpenFlow (or comparable) packet control.

Presumably, that's where Contrail comes in, but neither Muglia nor Sindhu offered any details on that front. In emphasizing the importance of network management, Step 1 in Muglia's four-stage journey to SDN Nirvana, Juniper also seemed to be taking a page from the onePK playbook. However, he was quick to salute the flag of open standards, saying that Juniper expects to play a leading role in defining the required service chaining protocols. Indeed, Muglia mentioned that an ETSI-sponsored working group is meeting this week to start the task of NFV standardization.

One area where Juniper could play a constructive role in the collective SDN transformation is in rewriting the rules for network software licensing, and here the news was positive. Muglia announced a new licensing and maintenance model that breaks the link between hardware and software. Starting this year, its products will be priced based on total capacity and usage, giving customers the flexibility to slice and dice the total pool among multiple virtual or physical devices. "Licensing for networking is so messed up and SDN gives us an opportunity to reboot it," Muglia said, a view undoubtedly shared by most in the convention hall.

Although Juniper's big SDN coming-out party was long on vision and concepts, while short on details and timelines, there was a lot to like. I anxiously await these specifics and to see how the company resolves the awkward "competitive cooperation" with OpenFlow, while integrating Contrail's technology to complete the lower layers of its SDN framework.

Kurt Marko is an IT pro with broad experience, from chip design to IT systems. He writes for Network Computing, InformationWeek and InformationWeek Reports.

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