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SDN Strategies Part 1: Vendors Vie For Market, Mindshare

While software-defined networking is key to every networking vendor’s product strategy, that doesn’t mean IT is buying the message. In fact, InformationWeek's most recent SDN Survey shows that most vendors earn a failing grade when it comes to explaining their plans.

The survey asked respondents to rate on a scale of 1 through 5 how familiar they are with the SDN strategies of 20 vendors, with a score of 5 equaling “extremely familiar.” Except for Cisco, which eked out a gentleman’s C with a rating of 3.1 out of 5, respondents are generally unfamiliar with vendors’ plans.

The survey also asked which vendors’ strategies best address their organizations’ requirements. A majority of respondents, 58%, say Cisco’s SDN strategy best fits their business needs, perhaps as a result of its market share leadership and ability to directly communicate its vision and product plans with customers. Other major enterprise vendors, including Arista, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Juniper, are bunched in the 16% range, while small SDN specialty shops such as Embrane, Midokura, and Plexxi are barely blips on respondents’ radar screens.

Interestingly, Cisco is aiming to further simplify its SDN slate by bundling and licensing products in four suites: Cisco ONE Essentials, Cisco ONE Foundational Elements, Cisco ONE Advanced Application Services, and Cisco ONE Advanced Security Services.

Dismal communication or not, there’s a land grab afoot for market and mindshare up and down the network stack, from switches to services, with tech giants and upstarts alike rolling out new strategies, architectures, and products designed to virtualize and automate network services. If you’re not looking to get insight into the various strategies, disruptive startups, and who’s atop the leaderboard in the new world of software-defined everything, you should be.

That’s because, much like cloud, big data, and mobility, SDN is a broad, nebulous term that can mean everything from automated configuration management to wholesale control over network flows, policies, and services. Such a diverse spectrum of interpretations translates to an equally divergent set of vendor strategies and feature sets.

As with other IT segments, some networking vendors want to be the one-stop shop for all your hardware and software needs; many see SDN as just one piece in a fully software-controlled datacenter running virtual network services and applications completely abstracted from the physical infrastructure. Put Dell, HP, IBM, Cisco, VMware, even Oracle in this group. Others, including Citrix and Midokura, see SDN as a natural extension for delivering virtual (as opposed to physical) network services and applications.

Shops do have time to decide which vision makes sense for their businesses, but the longer you wait to start evaluating, the more catch-up you’ll need to play.

One key point: Push back when anyone tries to sell you shiny new SDN technology without tying it to business benefits. IT has been down that path, and it makes you no friends in the CFO’s office. Demonstrating business value should be job one for every vendor on our list.

IT pros who’ve been burned by proprietary systems are wary, so vendors also must prove they’re in tune with established industry standards. “SDN in and of itself has potential, but needs to be standardized, much like Ethernet and networking standards are, before it will be commonplace,” one IT pro said in the survey. “Right now, it’s at the top of the ‘buzzword’ list.”

As you’ll see in this series of blog posts, products are starting to catch up to promises. I'll provide a rundown of SDN products in order of each vendor's SDN survey placement on the question of best strategy. In the next post, I'll look at SDN products from Cisco, Arista, and HP.