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SDN Change: Soft Battles, Hard Wars

Attention: Software Defined Networking (SDN) may be coming to a data center near you.

Agility and flexibility is what SDN is bringing to a tech area that has been somewhat divorced from the rest of computing till now. As Scott Shenker of UC Berkeley put it, many of the fundamental abstractions that are common to the application, database, and server areas were largely missing from the networking space. So far it has been all about lots of protocols. The data plane where routers and switches forward traffic has had its “layers 1 through 7” abstraction. But the control plane where forwarding logic (that decides which packet goes where) resides has been embedded in the device until now, which has perhaps resulted in a more device centric, “myopic” view of the network. By separating the control plane and putting it in a central software controller that enables programmatic access, the network as we know it has gotten transformed. Control is no longer at the individual device level but it is at the network as a whole.

Change is what SDN is bringing, and with change comes resistance to change. Several conflicts are under way.

First there are the “market wars.”

Between the old guard of vendors – Cisco, Juniper et al – and the new guard comprised of “upstarts” like Pica8 and Big Switch as well as VMware. Cisco has its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) while VMware has its NSX. Still ACI seems like a more comprehensive SDN solution, which is probably not surprising as Cisco is likely to have a better handle on networking per se than most other players. Clearly Cisco has the most to lose and so they can be expected to go all out to protect their turf.  Market share although has been slowly sliding. Cisco’s port market share fell from 70.8 percent in 2013 to 66.1 percent in 2014, a loss of 4.7 percentage points (www.bradreese.com/blog/3-18-2015.htm). However in absolute terms a 60+ percent share is not something to be sneezed at. Evidently Cisco still owns most of the data center.

Then there are the “people battles.”

In every data center there are the network administrators who manage the network and system administrators who manage the servers. An uneasy truce has prevailed so far. SDN promises to upend this situation. When proprietary networking hardware starts to move to commodity servers then it is likely to be advantage to the server guys.

As applications take on more network intelligence in order to program what network resources they need, application developers could take over the role of network admins. Therefore the application developer vs. network admin is yet another battle brewing.

Also looming ahead is the issue around the skills of current networking pros polished over several tens of years of managing routers, switches and so on. These are folks who have invested entire careers learning the ins and outs of Cisco and Juniper gear. Some of this knowledge is likely to become redundant as from knowing how to configure the network, the emphasis will start to shift to how to program the network.

At this point, one could hardly fault the network admins for feeling somewhat besieged. Reskilling is certainly an option but how many can turn on a dime and learn programming? When you have spent years training your mind to think in a particular way, doing an about-turn is easier said than done. Fortunately for the network techs, change is likely to take several years, not months or days. In most cases, it will possibly be a gradual shift with both old and new gear coexisting for a while.

However things can no longer be the same.

Cisco appears to be stepping up to align their training programs for the new world of networking. Certainly that would seem to make sense for Cisco. There are about over 2 million Cisco networking certified individuals today (source: May 2014, FierceWirelessTech story). Clearly these are people who are much more likely to vote for Cisco over other alternatives. Helping retrain them and prepare them for the SDN paradigm would appear to be in Cisco’s best interests. Reskilling these legions of pros looks like a smart move for Cisco.

Attrition though is a looming threat. Per a recent statistic in an August 2014 IDC research note: “27 percent of enterprises and 34 percent of cloud providers said they would be able to reduce the size of their network teams as a result of new technology and collaboration between other parts of the IT team.”

End of the day, SDN’s success seems to boil down to finding the right people who know how to get it done. Those who have expertise in programming networks and also understand today’s networking equipment would certainly be a great asset.

Ultimately the winner of the “hard” market wars could be the player that gets a handle on the “soft” people battles. That winner could very well be Cisco.

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