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Cisco's Rumored Quasi-Proprietary SDN Strategy Irks Some, Surprises Few

Cisco Systems' hint that it may introduce software-defined networking (SDN) technology that would not be based on the OpenFlow protocol prompted complaints from competing networking vendors and the OpenFlow community that Cisco was making another vendor lock-in play by offering proprietary technology, rather than standards-based products. Industry analysts say it's to be expected that Cisco would go the proprietary route as a way to preserve its industry-leading market share, and rival vendors are pushing open standards because that's the only way they can eat into Cisco's share.

Cisco hinted that it would go the proprietary route during its Cisco Live event in London Feb. 2. According to a report from the event, a Cisco executive was quoted as saying, "At this point we don't think [OpenFlow is] production ready."

Cisco replied to interview requests saying, "We have nothing to announce on SDN at this time."

That news from Cisco Live prompted a reaction from HP, which, at a news conference that same day in Cupertino, Calif., announced that it was releasing a free download of OpenFlow to enable customers to add SDN capabilities to 16 different networking gear product lines.

"It is at the heart of a philosophy at HP that we remain open with open standards so that we can be interoperable with the other networking vendors in the industry," says Bethany Mayer, senior VP and general manager of the HP Networking business. "If [Cisco has] decided to go the proprietary route, frankly, that's bad for the customers."

But two industry analysts say they were not surprised Cisco would pursue a proprietary SDN strategy because that is the right strategy for Cisco.

"Nobody else could pull that off, and for them that's the right strategy. That's how they maintain the share that they have," says Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research.

Cisco's market share ranges from between two-thirds and three-quarters, depending on the specific product segment. For instance, the company says it holds a 76% share in the emerging market for 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches.

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