In a perfect world--one invented 15 minutes ago--software-defined networking startups could build virtual network products that aren't encumbered by 30 years of tinkering with Ethernet. Ethernet has served us well, but as IT moves toward the software-defined data center , the network "is the barrier to cloud computing," according to Nicira (which was recently acquired by VMware). But, of course, the technology from Nicira will augment, not replace, traditional networking.
The lack of programmability in existing networking hardware is certainly a problem, but VMware's acquisition of Nicira does not mean that Cisco and its ilk will be marginalized, as Wired's Cade Metz would have you believe in his coverage of VMware's acquisition of Nicira. It does mean the role and management of the physical network is changing, and I think Cisco is further ahead than most of its competitors in creating a vision for the next phase of networking.
Let's review what Cisco offers in the data center. Its go-to product line in the data center is the Nexus family of switches, from the core with the Nexus 7000 to fabric extenders that reach to the top of the rack and into blade chassis. The Nexus 7000 and 5000 run FabricPath, a multi-path Ethernet protocol similar to the IETF's TRILL, which lets network admins create multiple loop-free paths through networks. Cisco also has the Nexus 1000V, which has replaced WMware's vSwitch. Cisco has continually added features like vPath to the 1000V, which can be used to add Layer 4-7 services like load balancing and firewalls its virtual switch. Cisco is also supporting VXLAN, which enables overlay networks similar to Nicira's STT. Finally, the 1000V will be available for Windows Server 2012 and Cisco has demonstrated the Nexus 1000V on OpenStack at Cisco Live. The demo showed the 1000V running as a virtual switch and interoperability between Quantum (OpenStack's virtual networking project) and Cisco's Virtual Supervisor Module.
Cisco also announced its SDN strategy at Cisco Live with Open Network Environment, which includes an SDK and API called onePK for routing and switching platforms such as the Integrated Services Router G2, Aggregation Services Router, Cloud Services Router and Nexus data center switches. Cisco says onePK will start shipping by the end of the year.
With Cisco selling physical and virtual networking, integrating the Nexus 1000v with multiple hypervisors and writing a module for Quantum support, does it really look like VMware/Nicira poses much of a threat to Cisco? Not from where I sit.
The other networking vendors like Brocade, HP and Juniper have their own data center SDN strategies and they're all works in progress--like Cisco's. That's OK. Enterprises aren't really ready for SDN quite yet, as the results from a recent InformationWeek survey of 250 IT professionals showed. Some 70% of respondents said they weren't even going to start testing SDN for at least a year. The full report and results will be published later this year.
Here's what's going to happen: VMware is going to use Nicria's technology to provide a management framework within vCenter for virtual and physical network equipment and because of VMware's market presence in the data center, all the networking vendors will work with it. Just like with storage, the VMware management components will be a subset of functions needed to provide networking for VMs, such as defining connections and profiles. More importantly, however, you'll be able to easily insert within vCenter services like load balancing and firewalling into the connections.
VCenter is going to assume that the network can fulfill the requests made by virtual machines. It will be up to vendors and network engineers to design and maintain robust and reliable networks that meet that assumption.