Every now and then, the industry seems to say, "OK, enough of this; it's time for a change." It's a sort of an antitrust action against the status quo because the needs of the market are not being met in economical and creative ways. The hype around SDN is so loud because it promises to upend the switch and router market, of which Cisco is the kingpin.
It's not surprising, then, that Cisco, which had previously signaled its distaste for SDN, has responded with the much-anticipated unveiling of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), a datacenter network solution from its spin-in Insieme Networks. The key pieces of the platform are a new line of Nexus switches and an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) -- which one observer aptly labeled as Cisco 's "un-SDN" answer to SDN.
But is it just bad timing that the very day the industry was abuzz with the ACI announcement, Dan Pitt, head of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), explained publicly why the organization did a sudden about-face and agreed to develop northbound interfaces (NBIs) so that the brains of an SDN infrastructure, the controller, can talk with other parts of an SDN solution, such as applications and management software? To be sure, the ONF, which has done much for SDN by developing the standard southbound interface, OpenFlow, had good reasons for holding off on the northbound side, chief among them to see if the vendor community itself could agree on NBIs.
The lack of clarity on what shape SDN eventually will take is bound to make prospective customers hesitate. Take something as core to SDN as the controller. It does not help that Cisco and Juniper, both platinum members of the OpenDaylight project, the forum working on an open-source controller, have distanced themselves from the group's work. Cisco is taking the position that while its new Nexus switches will work with OpenDaylight controllers and OpenFlow, it would be better for customers to go whole hog on the fully-Cisco ACI platform, rather than trying to integrate the open-source technology. Juniper even hinted that it may not have any use for the work of the OpenDaylight consortium at all.
At the same time, the ability to implement so-called "bare-metal" or "white-box" switches will challenge vendors like Cisco and others who sell closed boxes. This new breed of switches could do to hardware what SDN does to network infrastructure. Bare-metal switches disaggregate switching in the sense you have only a box based on merchant silicon, as opposed to one using custom ASICs. In other words, the switches have no operating system or any software that would utilize the operating system. Some of the biggest names in the business -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft -- are reportedly buying generic switches directly from original design manufacturers and bypassing vendors like Cisco, Juniper, HP, Dell, and Force10.
If the idea behind SDN was to break open the proprietary switch and router market and encourage innovation, the argument could be made that it has succeeded spectacularly. In this regard, Cisco is to be thanked for continuing the debate on the new network paradigm and offering customers more options than they perhaps might want in having to choose between an un-SDN Cisco ACI solution and various-source solutions. And on the open controller front, we have OpenDaylight developing a northbound interface, while Juniper offers its own open-source controller.
In short, the choices for the new network are clear as mud. Going forward, customers can opt for Cisco, open-sources (plural), and/or standards-based networks -- at least until the market sorts things out.