Why SDN isn't where we thought it would be

The SDN hype started a few years ago. Everyone was talking about it as the next big thing, and it all made so much sense. I started exploring SDN while Nicira and Insieme were just two startups, and got even deeper into it when they were bought by VMware and Cisco and rose as ACI and NSX.

SDN makes perfect sense. A single point of management and operations of the entire data center network, micro Segmentation as an embedded feature, REST API support for automation, possibility to move the workloads between Sites without having to reconfigure the security policy, and a bunch of others. It truly is a missing piece, arriving a bit too late. So… why hasn't the same happened like when we started using server virtualization? Why isn't everyone implementing these technologies, and celebrating the benefits while singing their favourite tune?



In my opinion, two reasons: misleading PowerPoints and vendors with the wrong go to market strategy.

Misleading PowerPoints

Networking tends to be more complex then Compute and Storage in the Data Center. You have a group of independent network devices that need to transfer an insane number of packets between different points, with zero latency, and no time to talk to each other and coordinate the decisions. When you introduce Automation into the equation, it all gets really interesting. With SDN we introduced overlay, and managed to somehow make all this easier. Where is the problem then?

Automation is an awesome concept. If you automate, you will improve the delivery times, and always end up with the same results. Automation is not new… it's been here since the 70s, and even though the execution premises have changed, one thing stays the same:
- If you automate, you will save a lot of time and resources.
- To create automation, you need a lot of knowledge, experience and a lot of time and effort.

The truth about misleading PowerPoints lies in the second point. Everyone rushed to explain to their customers how their SDN has an API, and how you can automate everything in an instance, I saw bonus hungry AMs and SEs singing the songs to the customers about how they can use the automation tool of choice. "There's an API so you're good bro!" Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Yes, SDN supports automation of your network, but it takes a lot of hard work to set it up right, and if you sold something to the customer without setting their expectations right… well, he will be disappointed.

What is the truth? Both ACI and NSX are mature solutions, but the SDN is no longer a group of independent switches, it needs to be integrated in the wider ecosystem, and it makes all the difference who integrates all this in your Data Center. If the customers were prepared for this from the beginning, I think we'd all bee seeing a whole lot more SDNs.


Vendor Strategy

I'll talk about 2 big ones here - VMware and Cisco. Have you noticed how these two vendors have the same number of production references in each moment? Like there is some kind of secret synchronisation behind the curtain. Ever wondered why that is?

The truth is that both, ACI and NSX, are great products. Yes, GREAT! It's also true that a surprisingly small number of "SDN experts" out there understands HOW and WHY these products need to be introduced in the data center ecosystem, so a majority of the happy SDN customers that Cisco and VMware are referencing are kind of fake, meaning - yes, they are using the product, and yes, it's in production, but it is not used as SDN. Sure, Cisco has DevNet, and VMware has VMware Code, and these are both great initiatives, but they still lack a critical mass… both of them do. [if you don’t know what these are, I STRONGLY recommend that you stop reading this post, and go check out both these websites, they are AWESOME].

What is Cisco's mistake?

Cisco counts on their traditional big partners to deliver ACI. These guys can sell networking to a networking department, they get BGP and VxLAN, they can build the fabric in what Cisco brutally named "a networking mode", and they can train the networking department to use ACI. That’s it. So… what about automation, IAC (infrastructure as code), what about the developers who are actually the true buyer here, and they just need to provision some secure communication for their code? Well, I'm afraid there's nothing here for them, because neither a Cisco's networking partner not the customers networking department are able to configure and prepare the ACI for what these guys really need SDN for. Customer simply isn't getting what they paid for, and they are pretty vocal about it in the social networks, so the product gets bad marketing.

And yes, there are companies out there (such as mine) who are able to implement ACI as a part of a Software Defined ecosystem and help customer build automation around it, but Cisco somehow still isn's seeing the difference, and is still promoting same old networking partners to the customers to implement their ACI. Oh well… let's hope Cisco starts to understanding this before it's late.


What is VMware's mistake?

NSX is an entirely different story. The problem isn't VMware's strategy, but rather - the buyer. SDN is still networking, so the buyer is a Networking Department, but… Networking guys don’t know VMware, they know Cisco and Juniper. On the other hand there are System Admins who are desperate to gain control over network and not depend on the slow networking departments, but… they lack advanced networking knowledge. So NSX, being a brilliant product as it is, ended up in no mans land. VMware did everything to promote NSX to Network experts, if you're a CCIE, like me, you can actually do NSX cert exams without doing the training, and NSX is easy to learn and understand, but still, not enough hype around it among network admins. So, what happened? Well, for now there are many implementations of NSX used the way System and Security experts are able to promote and manage it, Micro Segmentation with some basic networking, but not even close to the NSX full potential, and again - not used as an SDN.


What about the other SDN vendors? 

There are a few worth mentioning: Nokia Nuage, Juniper Contrail, some distributions of OpenDayLight (HP, Dell, Huawei, Ericsson, NEC, etc.). Two things are happening with these guys:

  • Due to all mentioned above, the Customers are under the wrong impression that not even ACI and NSX are fully mature and stable solutions… If Cisco and VMware aren't able to invest what it takes and make it stable, what do you expect from the others?
  • In one moment all these guys made huge investments in their technology, and there was still no sales to support the investment, so - they lowered the prices and started selling the solutions that weren't yet mature. This caused customers dissatisfaction, and the rumor on the market that SDN just "isn't there yet". They can still recover… as long as they actually invest in product development and engineering skills, and let product sell itself. 



What should we expect in the next 2-4 years?

SDN is here to stay, even more so with IoT and Containers with a whole set of new micro Segmentation and Network automation requirements. It just takes it longer then anticipated to find it's place. I think the customers are slowly starting to get the non-planned effort to actually move from installing the SDN product - to using it as a Software Defined technology, which is good, so if you're considering SDN as a potential career path - add some automation and programming skills, and you're on the right track.

1 comment:

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