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Cisco's Answer to SDN: Open Network Environment

Cisco is starting to lay out its software-defined networking (SDN) strategy. Rather than sticking with the definition of SDN that focuses on the separation of the control plane and the data plane, however, Cisco wants to keep the networking processes that work today and offer deeper integration with third-party software. Its answer: Open Network Environment.

The interesting aspect of SDN is that the network responds to not only application demands, but also to changes in network behaviors. Cisco's view of SDN has a control mechanism, but more importantly it includes a feedback mechanism so the network paths can be recomputed on the fly, avoiding congestion because of impending oversubscription.

According to Cisco, how SDN will be used depends on who's using it. Educational institutions such as Stanford, where OpenFlow was created, want control and network segmentation. Cloud providers need to support multitenancy, automated provisioning and dynamic VM moves at scale. Service providers need efficient ways to move traffic from point to point quickly and monetize new services. Enterprises need to support initiatives like VDI and private cloud. These different segments highlight different needs that, in Cisco's opinion, aren't served by a single solution. Moreover, Cisco wants to preserve the time-tested network features that work, and add newer functions like programmability, application awareness and operational simplicity. That's a tall order.

The Open Network Environment (ONE) is no different. The message from Cisco is that organizations need more than just a controller-based network--they need to incorporate many physical and virtual networking components that provide security and optimization features to applications. Of course, ONE applies primarily to Cisco's own products and integration partners. Nearly all the announcements for Cisco ONE won't see the light of day until the fourth quarter, when beta trials will begin and general availability will be phased in.

Teasing the SDN announcements for today, CEO John Chambers told a gathering of reporters, "When you miss a market transition, it takes a long time to recover. It took IBM 20 years to recover from missing the transition from mainframe to client/server. Wang never recovered. We are a bit late with our cloud strategy. SDN is still in its early stage--it's where cloud was three years ago. With these announcements, you will see we are leading." That position aligns with research from our January "IT Pro Ranking: Data Center Networking" report, which found that switch scripting and APIs--the features that make SDN possible--were an extremely low priority.

Andre Kindness, a senior researcher at Forrester Research, concurs. According to the consultancy, less than 2% of organizations are actually managing their virtual switches. Virtualization is still server-focused; for example, VMware's disaster recovery features are focused on CPU and RAM availability--the networking is expected to be where it is needed. Cisco is opening the networking conversation up, as are rivals such as Brocade, HP and Juniper. Startups like Big Switch, Context Stream, Embrane, NEC and Nicira could influence the direction, as well.

Cisco's announcements are their first steps in its direction.

Next: Cisco's One Platform Kit and other CiscoLive Announcements

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