Software defined networking: Hype or hope?

Summary:Sure, SDN is a great idea. But will it get industry support?

Robin Harris

Robin Harris

Hype

or

Hope

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Best Argument: Hype

44%
56%

Audience Favored: Hope (56%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Destined to be another unfulfilled promise

Robin Harris: Of course SDN is hype. Yes, there is a good idea: separating data and control planes, and making the control plane an open software product.

But the bottom line is that while SDN may be good for customers, it isn't in the interest of the large switch vendors. They have a thousand ways to sabotage OpenFlow while at the same time pointing to their "progress" in making SDN a reality.

SDN is a wonderful idea. Many startups will emerge to enable it. But it goes against the switch and router vendor's commercial interests and it will fail.

I saw this same process decade ago with SANS. Once the fog of hype clears, SDN will be another unfulfilled promise.

SDN holds networking's future

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: If you're about networking -- and in today's IT world how can you not be? -- then just as surely as IPv6 lies in your future so does Software Defined Networking (SDN).

It's really very simple. As the Open Networking Foundation says, SDN brings direct software programmability to networks. Typically this is done with the OpenFlow protocol, but other protocols can be used.

With this ability, you can use SDN to centrally manage and monitor your network across not just routers and switches from a single vendor but across any networking hardware that implements standardized SDN protocols. For network administrators this enables them to create efficient virtual networks that are independent from physical networks.

This, in turn, means for the CFO that a company's network infrastructure can be used more affordably. Thus, SDN, which now has broad industry support—even Cisco has finally j umped on -board , is a win-win both for the CIO and the CFO.

SDN won't arrive overnight. There's too much legacy equipment. Still, with advantages for both the technicians and the bottom line, it will come.

 

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is everybody ready?

    I am

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Check

    Ready at this end.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    Check-in

    Let's get started

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The big hope or the big hype?

    Software defined networking was barely on the radar before VMware bought Nicira. Now everyone and their mother is talking about SDNs. Where are we on the hype cycle for SDN?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Heated competition

    VMware paid a lot of money to get into SDN. It is in their interest to promote SDN as the next big wave in networking and virtualization. In addition, Cisco is not a well liked company, and there are many people who would like to take them down several notches.

    There is an undeniable logical appeal to the notion that after virtualizing servers and storage we should now virtualize networks. But just as storage virtualization has not eliminated the storage companies, and server virtualization has not eliminated the server companies, it would be a mistake to assume that SDN will have a sizable impact on networking companies.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    It's hype but is becoming real

    We're still seeing a lot of hype. Even the name itself, Software Defined Networking, encourages hype. It's really software managed networking. The network hardware underneath SDN still determines a network's ultimate quality and performance.

    Leaving the hype aside, that management part will change corporate networking. Sure, central control of network functionality isn't new, but broadly accepted open, standard-based control via OpenFlow is new and, beginning this year, it will start improving network performance for those companies that are willing to invest in it. Better still, that in turn should lead to financial savings and, in today's weak economy, that's what will really power the transition to SDN.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    You say you want a revolution...

    The appeal of SDNs are obvious. What infrastructure is missing to truly launch the SDN revolution?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Interoperability is the key

    The most obvious and difficult piece required to launch the SDN revolution is interoperability. It does no good if the SDN from Juniper does not work with the SDN from Cisco.

    Interoperability is the stumbling block that killed multi-vendor storage networks 15 years ago. As long as it is not in the interests of the big networking players to make their SDN systems interoperable on a production basis - not a demo basis - so you can forget about widespread adoption of multivendor SDN.

    Won't open source vendors solve that problem? Not any more than they have in servers and storage.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    It's evolution

    I wouldn't use the word revolution., I'd call it evolution. If, and I will admit that it's still an "if." Network vendors can keep their eye on the long-term prize of interoperability via OpenFlow, then the infrastructure will come in time. The pieces, primarily smart-switches built from commodity hardware, simply need to be put in place.

    Since most companies only replace networking infrastructure when they no longer have a choice, this will be a gradual process. Eventually, when the awareness of SDN cost-savings reaches to the CFO's office, we'll see a tipping point in companies when they elect to switch-out the old network for the new.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The players

    How do you think networking players will fare in an SDN-driven world? Notably how will Cisco do? And HP?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Agility needed

    If SDN has a significant impact on the market, a big if, the networking players will find two things: first, their world will become more complicated and they will have to become more agile; and, second, there will be some new players for them to contend with. But the core of the big iron networking market will largely be unaffected.

    There are not many companies that have mastered the technology and have the distribution required to sell and support enterprise class switches and routers.

    Cisco's John Chambers is tired, but the rest of Cisco is rich and smart. They may have a few years of flat or even declining growth in their core network markets but there is nothing in SDN that threatens their hegemony.

    HP has a unique opportunity because they are the only significant player in all three segments of servers, storage and networks. If they extend their concept of converged infrastructure to include cost-effective network switches they will have a formidable and defendible market position that Cisco will find difficult to challenge.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    Don't count Cisco out

    Some people seem to think <a href="http://www.zdnet.com/blog/saas/the-day-software-ate-cisco/1548">Cisco is doomed</a> — doomed I tell you -- by the arrival of SDN . I Don't Think So. Cisco's John Chambers <a href="http://www.zdnet.com/cisco-makes-its-software-defined-network-case-do-you-buy-it-7000002758/">has bought into SDN</a>.

    Doesn't Cisco have a large investment in legacy hardware networking? Of course they do. So what? As I said earlier this changeover is going to be evolutionary not revolutionary and when Cisco's customers look to replace their legacy switches, Cisco will have new SDN-enabled switches ready for them. It's going to be business as usual for Cisco.

    As Robin mentioned, HP might just be in a great position for SDN since they're already deep into servers, storage and networks. But, have you been watching HP lately? HP has become the company that can't do anything right. CEO <a href="http://www.zdnet.com/hp-q1-solid-whitman-says-i-feel-good-about-rest-of-the-year-7000011639/">Meg Whitman may feel good</a> about the rest of 2013 but after years of one misstep after another, in HP's last quarter it saw revenue declines across all of its units. So, sure, HP potentially could do great with SDN, but, based on their recent track record, that's not the way to bet.

    All the major network players seem to be jumping into SDN. As a result I really don't see the network vendor market changing that much. Same companies, new products, it will continue to be networking as usual.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Room for more?

    Is there room for an upstart to use SDNs to disrupt the market?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    The biggest opportunity

    Absolutely. But the disruption will not come in the core hardware market. SDN is primarily a management tool and that is where the biggest opportunity for disrupters to win.

    The last few months has seen a land grab of mergers and acquisitions on the SDN front. Is this money well spent?

    Some of it is. The problem: we won't know which is which for a couple of years.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    Little room for movement

    I don't think so. The hardware infrastructure is already sewed up and IT buys network switches not software. For example, there are several smaller open-source SDN projects, and while I'm a big open-source believer I never heard about them in business network circles.

    The one open-source project with a shot, Big Switch Networks' <a href="http://www.zdnet.com/sdn-experimental-networking-tech-gets-a-commercial-boost-7000007318/">Open Software-Defined Networking product suite</a> is no upstart. Besides Big Switch, it's got Microsoft, Citrix, Dell, F5 and Juniper Networks behind it.

    SDN is going mainstream in a hurry and the big-time players are going with it.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    CXO's are talking

    Do you think we'll get to the point where CXOs are talking about SDNs or will it remain in the weeds of IT?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Terrible acronym

    CIOs will be talking about SDN for the next couple of years. But the rest of the senior management team? Not so much.

    SDN will just be another incomprehensible acronym for non-IT execs.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    It's geek to me

    CIOs and CTOs are already talking about and I've had one tech-savvy CFO talk to me about it, but even when SDN is in everything it's still going to be techie geek stuff to most people.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Routers and switches

    Ultimately, will SDNs mean fewer routers and switches will be sold?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Reducing costs

    No. If it actually reaches the market and makes it easier to manage networks, it will reduce the marginal cost of each additional port. That will increase consumption of networking gear, although that gear will be significantly cheaper and less functional.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    Hungry for bandwidth

    No. Instead what I expect to happen is that networking gear will get cheaper. At the same time, we already know that we are endlessly hungry for bandwidth so companies will just buy more equipment. I don't see this hardware getting less functional though. We'll have the same features, faster bandwidth, and with SDN providing management services.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Great expectations

    Are your expectations for the SDN market too high today?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No surprises

    No. I have seen this kind of hype cycle too many times in the last 30 years to be surprised by it.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    No getting rich

    I think SDN has some networking people very excited, but I don't how high their expectations really are. They seem to think that it will give new networking hardware a boost, along with the transition to IPv6, I don't think anyone sees themselves getting rich from SDN alone.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Virtualization?

    When do you see SDNs becoming the norm like server virtualization?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Hard to calculate

    The economic case for server virtualization was much easier to make. You could show someone with 4000 servers how they could go to 500 servers and save a lot of money in the process.

    With SDN, the advantages are mostly on the management side. The economic advantages of improved management come out of the operations budget and less so out of the capital budget.

    That means that the savings from STN are much more difficult to quantify and to capture in practice.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    What the future holds

    2016. Again, it will just be part of the natural hardware replacement cycle. I see a lot of hardware coming out this year, mass-acceptance in 2014, and then everyone following along in 2015 and 2016.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Open source

    What's the role of open source software for SDNs?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Chasing around

    The open source guys will be chasing the features that the proprietary SDN vendors offer. Some people will use them, but if SDN actually achieves critical mass you can be sure it will be proprietary versions – just as with server virtualization today – that lead the pack.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    It's more about open standards

    It's helped it along and at least one project, Open Software-Defined Networking, will doubtlessly become important in its own right. That said, I don't see a Linux or an OpenStack becoming major players. The proprietary network vendors are already invested in SDN and most customers will just get their SDN software from their current providers. To me, SDN is much more about open standards than it is open source.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last question

    What will SDNs mean for networking jobs? After all, SDNs promise to automate a bevy of network admin tasks.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No big changes

    Don't expect to see a big change in the number of network administrators required. If SDN gains wide acceptance then skills in the conceptual and architectural levels will become more important than they are today.

    But, as with server virtualization, the increased manageability of SDN will drive demand for people to manage them. Whereas a single server admin might've managed 25 servers 15 years ago today they can manage several hundred. But because there are now hundreds of virtual servers to manage we still need about as many server admins as we did in the past.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Hype

    Need for advanced skills

    It will automate them, but at the same time, we're asking a lot more from our networks. The net result is that there will be less work for low-level network administrators, but more for high-level network managers, network engineers, and network architects.

    With that in mind, if I were a network tech. today I'd be honing up my advanced skills as fast as possible. A Network+ certification alone won't cut it in the coming years.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Hope

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks to all

    Both Robin and Steven did a great job. Check back in Wednesday to see their closing statements and Thursday at 2pm ET, 11am PT when my choice for the winner will be posted. In the meantime, please read the talkbacks and add your opinion. Thanks!

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

Closing Statements

SDN is a good idea. But...

Robin Harris

Don't believe the hype. SDN is a good idea. But it depends on big vendors supporting it in a multivendor environment.

I wouldn't hold my breath.

Cisco, in particular, is experienced in meeting standards and then adding extra goodies that lock-in users. In addition, and I've seen this before, vendors will achieve a level of interoperability that demos well but isn't quite ready for the data center.

So yes, Stephen may be correct that you will have something called SDN in your networks in a few years. But the question we're debating is whether SDN will live up to the hype.

Anyone who has watched big multivendor initiatives before knows that vendors will do everything possible to retain their high margins. And if SDN doesn't reduce those margins, it will be just another checkbox item.

Readers are voting with their hearts. In five years their heads will know the truth.

 

 

SDN is coming and it can't be stopped

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

You know, I really don't even think this is a debate. SDN will be in your network in the next few years. Period. End of statement.

All the major network vendors are behind it. Heck, even companies like Microsoft and VMware, which are not companies you think of when you talk "network", are investing in it.

The real question is: Will SDN remain open enough that the term still has meaning, or will it just divide up into incompatible network management fragments?

We've already been down that failed road before so I think that this time the network players will make sure that at least basic interoperability will be present in everyone's take on SDN.

This, in turn, will make networking infrastructure and management cheaper and thus make it more attractive to the real rulers of IT these days: the CFOs. SDN will prove to be omnipresent in networking in the coming years as gigabit Ethernet is today.

 

In the short term and long run

Lawrence Dignan

Picking a winner in this debate really boils down to time frame. In the short term, Robin Harris has the best argument. SDN is largely hype at the moment as the building blocks are being put into place. In the long run, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has a better case.

Overall, I have to pick a winner based on the current rebuttal and Robin had a more eloquent case. 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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