Software Defined Networking - Incoming Disruption

Trends and Opportunities in Software Defined Networking

At Hummer Winblad, we spend most of our time focusing on the software space. Within software, Software Defined Networking (SDN) is an area that we are particularly bullish on at the moment. A lot of interesting companies are emerging that are challenging the silicon oriented networking dominance using creative SDN solutions. Imagine a world where you can have the software innovation cycle sitting on top of one of the most important pieces of the infrastructure world; networks. Servers have been virtualized, storage has been the next category to fall is networking.

It is early in this trend, but if the attendance and excitement at the Open Networking Summit this week is any indicator it will be a very fast moving market. Attendance has tripled since last year and my guess is they will need a new venue for next year.

Challenges to the Cisco Networking Dominance
Cisco has dominated the commercial networking sector for a long time and is a fantastically competitive company. With their acquisition of Linksys in 2003 they have expanded to dominate the residential and small business markets as well. This has typically meant that users of Cisco and Linksys networking hardware were limited by the features built into their devices through proprietary firmware and hardware. This is also true of the hardware provided by many other networking manufacturers. Cisco used to stay well clear of the other technology areas and work well with partners like server vendors. This is changing and forcing everyone to rethink their alliances. Dell has added over 1000 networking engineers in the last year because of this shift. Cisco’s dominance, coupled with operators’ desire to control network flows themselves prompted a new era, and standard…

…Enter Disruption: The OpenFlow Standard
The OpenFlow standard originated at Stanford University, and was founded by Nick McKeow­n and some of his colleagues. We first heard about this from the postgraduate work of one of the founders of a company we funded in 2001 called Voltage Security. Guido then went on to start BigSwitch in the OpenFlow space. The standard was created in reaction to a general frustration that companies like Cisco and Hewlett Packard were essentially “walled gardens”. It was not easy for network technologists to control the flow of data and information through networks. With OpenFlow, McKeown and his colleagues were able to circumvent Cisco and HP hardware to optimize and establish their own desired network flows.

OpenFlow was the pioneer in SDN, and it officially launched as a networking specification in 2008. It was hailed as one of the top 10 emerging technologies in 2009, and paved the way to the Open Networking Foundation in 2011. As of 2012, OpenFlow can be installed on a list of commercially available routers.

Changes in the Data Center

Using software defined networking such as that provided by OpenFlow, a network administrator can quickly implement changes to an entire network or specific segments by writing code which can modify the logical map of the network within the software. This means that network administration can be done remotely, including making changes to the physical network through software. What once required a technician to physically move a cable from one port to another can now be done through software. This is similar in scope to virtual servers and the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud.
The New Networking Alliances

The development of software defined networking has created new alliances between various networking companies. Currently, Cisco, Juniper, HP, NEC, T-Mobile, Ericsson, and NNT DoCoMo are working with OpenFlow to set the standard for software defined networking. These new alliances will hopefully lead to greater innovation at a pace that looks more like software than 2+ year silicon cycles.
One thing is for certain – SDN will be a widely adopted standard in the near future. I cant say for sure that it will be OpenFlow, or if it will be 2013, but there will be some fantastically interesting and big companies that are created in this technology wave. We are still at the early stages of SDN, and exciting things are bound to happen in the space.