Software is the Hard Part

Boy, that escalated quickly

Well, that was unexpected. The Super-Duper big news Monday (July 23rd) is that VMware has purchased Nicira, and it seems (at least right now in the heat of the moment) that this is a game changer for the industry. I’m writing down my thoughts on this subject here, which may or may not turn out to be insightful. I’m just spitballing here. For some great perspectives check out Brad Casemore’s post and Greg Ferro’s post on Network Computing.

First, this could mark a turning point when networking moves from mostly a hardware game to mostly a software game. With Nicira, VMware has purchased arguably the most advanced control plane out there by a long shot. And unlike Cisco’s Insieme spin-in and Cisco OnePK, Nicira is a shipping, mature(-ish?) product with big-name customers (though how widely deployed it is unknown).

Most are in agreement that this change from hardware to software was coming, but I think that most (including myself) figured this change would take a few more years. Nicira had been an interesting curiosity until now; a few big name customers sure, but not really market penetration. With VMware having an presence in just about every data center in the world, Nicira can be pitched/adapted to a much, much wider audience.

Why the change from hardware to software? Mostly the commoditization of network hardware. Vendors like Broadcom and Intel (through the Fulcrum purchase) offer SoC (Switch on Chips) and other Ethernet silicon that can be (relatively) easily engineered into a switch with much less R&D than was previously possible. As has been mentioned, most of the network vendors use these now to build their switches. Cisco has been pretty much the lone hold out in this trend, continuing to invest in their own R&D, chipsets, and hardware. Even Juniper’s ambitious QFabric is believed to run on top of Broadcom Trident+ chips.

This will be a challenge not just for Cisco, but Juniper, Arista, etc., as the differentiation in capabilities and performance between their silicon versus commodity silicon is declining. If you can’t differentiate in hardware, they’ll have to create new differentiations.

Nicira could potentially take away one of those differentiations: Software. Cisco, Juniper, Brocade, and others have been working on software differentiations. Cisco has several technologies, including FabricPath (very cool, but licensed badly), Juniper has QFabric, Brocade with VCS Fabric, etc. Cisco also has the Nexus 1000v, and while Nicira is not an immediate threat, it could potentially put a wrench in those gears.

Nicira is a very advanced control plane, in many ways very different than anything currently out there. Most people run the usual suspects for their control planes: Spanning-tree, OSPF, BGP, etc. Slightly more modern control planes are TRILL, SPB, VXLAN and NVGRE, OpenFlow, and Juniper’s QFabric. But none of them tie it all together end-to-end quite like Nicria does. And now it belongs to VMware. And because it belongs to VMware, Nicira now has exposure into almost every data center on the planet.

In a Nicira SDN world, the only thing you need from a network vendor in a data center is a network built with OSPF and inexpensive Broadcom/Fulcrum-based switches. You wouldn’t need TRILL/SPB, FabricPath, QFabric, VDS, or even spanning-tree (since every pair of switches would be its own Layer 3 domain). The Nicira/SDN controller would create the overlay based on whatever overlay network technologies (VXLAN/NVGRE/STT) between the virtual switches located in the hypervisor.

Espcially with an SDN-dominated world, there’s not much to differentiate on hardware anymore, and in an SDN world software won’t be much of a differentiation either, since one vendor’s OSPF isn’t going to be different than another’s.

In terms of SDN, Cisco, Juniper, et al are behind. For starters, neither Cisco nor Juniper have really lead the SDN charge. They’ve both opened up or announced that they will shortly open up their switches and routers with APIs that will allow SDN controllers to control them, but they both lack a controller of their own and have seemed for the most part to have more of a defensive strategy against SDN (since it potentially distrupts them).

This could be tough for Juniper, Cisco, Arista, etc. to overcome. They’re mostly geared as hardware companies. Turning them into full-fledged software companies will be a challenge. Insime is supposed to be SDN related, but who knows if it’ll be an answer to Nicira, or something more anemic.

As with all of this, time will tell. Things are changing so fast, it’s impossible to predict the future. But one thing I am fairly certain of is that software, as Nokia and RIM have figured out, software is the hard part.

5 Responses to Software is the Hard Part

  1. ucsguru says:

    Agree, good assessment.

  2. Ethan Banks says:

    I’m waiting to see how VMware positions this tech before I get too excited. Yes, the core hardware differentiation is being lost if the interesting functionality moves out to the edge. But for mass adoption, there needs to be a value proposition that the average CIO can grasp. I’m not sure how VMware is going to handle that part, and I think carefully crafting that message is going to be critical for them to make the most of their billion plus expenditure.

  3. Jon Langemak says:

    I agree with Ethan. There’s just too much ‘I dont know’ at this point to tell if this is going to be a game changer. Is VMWare going to adopt Nicira’s Open VSwitch design? Or stick with their own distributed switch? I think this entire thing could go either way depending on small decisions around the converged implementation. Im anxious to see what comes of this in the next few months…

  4. Peter Foppen says:

    I think Microsoft gets more market share in the low- to mid range market.
    VMware will still lead in the big data centers market space, because of it’s superior feature set.

    Cisco has also introduced the Nexus 1000v for Windows Server 2012 / Hyper-V.

    After the Nexus 1000v Cisco has introduced the virtual ASA1000v and the Cloud Services Router (CSR1000v) The CSR1000v enables you to terminate MPLS right into virtual environment that is running somewhere in the cloud.
    The CSR1000v also supports features like LISP and OTV and will be shipping the begin of 2013.

    Cisco has showed a SDN controller, but it’s only used at some major universities.
    Phil Casini Linkedin profile says: “Working on Cisco’s Software Defined Networking strategy and currently focused on developing a SDN controller for deployment in leading universities.”

    I think Cisco want to bring several solutions to the market:
    – Programmable API (OnePK) for routers / switches. (This is a sort of extension of the EEM / Embedded Event Manager that is available on many Cisco platforms.)
    – Virtual network appliances (Nexus1000v, ASA1000v, CSR1000v, ISE, etc.)
    – A fully fledged SDN controller.

    Cisco is slowly moving to software, but does not want to bet on one horse only.
    They know networking. Question is if VMware is able to integrate Nicira into it’s product portfolio.

  5. Great read Tony. I am always so late to catching good posts. The picture says it all hehe.

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