Designed to deliver flexibility and choice in networking gear to enterprise IT, software-defined networking (SDN) has generated a good deal of buzz in the user community. For those in the know, SDN offers the means to circumvent lock in to proprietary hardware and systems, and a way to customize management of networking equipment to better address the dynamic needs of business-driven applications in the IT environment. SDN technology has gained rapid traction since the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) was established in 2011 with a mandate to commercialize the technology. Though adoption rates provided by market watchers vary, these all lean towards growth trends of the wildly optimistic kind: while MarketsandMarkets, for example, estimated that the global SDN market would grow at a CAGR of 60.43% from 2012 to reach $2.1 billion in 2017, a more recent study conducted by Plexxi, Light Speed Ventures and SDNCentral has upped the ante, calculating a CAGR of 88% for the global SDN market, with $35.6 billion for SDN in 2018 accounting for between 30 – 40 percent of total network spend. If somewhat buoyant, these market estimates attest to hyper fast recognition by users of the potential benefits of the software-centric approach to networking.
For networking vendors, SDN represents a double edged sword. Based on the OpenFlow standard protocol, which enables physical separation of the networking control plane and infrastructure to create programmable networks, SDN has the potential to threaten marketing of traditional unified networking solutions, and even hardware sales. But it also acts as a disruptor that may provide an entrée to players looking to better position in the networking industry, and to those hoping to penetrate new geographic markets. In its approach to the SDN challenge, HP has adopted a Janus-like stance: embracing open standards in the development of its software controller and switches, the company is also actively working to transform its ongoing support of the ONF community into pragmatic commercial relationships designed to create new opportunity for HP networking hardware and ecosystem partners. A good example of this two-pronged strategy may be found in the SDN collaboration between HP and NEC Corporation that was announced earlier this month.
The NEC – HP strategic alliance stretches back two decades, to NEC’s decision to develop large-scale, mission-critical enterprise IT systems on HP’s Unix-based operating system, HP-UX, in 1995. This month, the partners extended their collaboration on enterprise servers to network infrastructure solutions, to open-standards-based SDN capable of addressing the increasing demand placed on networks by cloud, mobile and social applications. Specifically, the agreement covers: joint engineering to develop interoperability between HP SDN-Ready OpenFlow switches and the NEC SDN controller, with management and dashboard available via an SDN module in HP’s IMC platform; the porting of NEC’s Virtual Tenant Network (VTN) application onto the HP platform for integration with the HP SDN controller and inclusion of the VTN in HP’s SDN App Store; and joint marketing of these networking solutions. NEC’s alliance goal was stated by EVP Shinichi Shoji as follows: “NEC is a pioneer in commercializing SDN in the global market. It is vital for NEC to accelerate technical innovation and maximize customers’ investment efficiencies.” Ultimately, the partnership is aimed at demonstrating how HP and NEC’s ongoing to commitment to open-standards SDN can support customer efficiencies and help drive momentum in the creation of an open standards networking vendor ecosystem.
On a technical level, Michael Zhu, senior director of global solutions and alliances, HP Networking, sees this alliance as “very significant for SDN” because HP and NEC are two of the very few SDN vendors that “play at all of the three SDN architectural layers, with products in the infrastructure, controller and applications layers.” In his view, HP and NEC’s ongoing investment in SDN and OpenFlow and their mutual commitment to open standards means that the new partnership will make a real contribution to “the evolution of the SDN market.” “SDN is about open,” Zhu claimed, “it’s about commitment to open protocols like OpenFlow and about constructing an open ecosystem with a wealth of application developers. This is an approach that HP and NEC share, which is reflected in our support of the Open Network Foundation, where we are both active in various working groups.” To underscore this commitment, Zhu pointed to HP’s release in 2008 of the first commercially available OpenFlow-enabled switch and to its position in the current market landscape: “if you look at the market today, HP has the largest number of OpenFlow switches in the world. There are not any vendors that come close to the number of OpenFlow-enabled models we have [over 50], or the number of OpenFlow enabled ports [over 25 million] we have installed in customer premises.” Additionally, HP leads two of the more important ONF working groups – with strong support from NEC, Sarwar Raza, an HP representative, chairs the Northbound Interface Working Group, which is working on standardization in controllers to facilitate porting of applications, and HP’s Jean Tourrhiles also chairs the Extensibility Working Group, which works as an “editor” to drive the latest technology into future versions of OpenFlow.
For its part, Zhu noted that NEC was one of the first vendors to develop an SDN controller, and has early adopter advantage in terms of building open source SDN technology into other products, such as switches. As a result, Zhu noted, “they have a leadership position in terms of timing to get the controller in place, and they have also been working on interoperability with other products.” NEC is working hard to ensure that its SDN applications can run on many different SDN controllers – the VTN, for example, which communicates with OpenStack cloud orchestration to create virtual multi-tenancy in network infrastructure, can run on the Linux OpenDaylight platform and HP technology. As a virtualized networking application, the VTN offers good potential to mediate the networking bottleneck that has dogged efficiencies in cloud computing.
While HP and NEC each have their own SDN technology ecosystems with distinct features and functionality, Zhu claimed that both partners have committed to open source in order to deliver additional “value to the customer”: “it’s a philosophy that we [HP] have embraced that will eventually make our company more successful.” One source of this value is customer choice, which HP has also committed to in go-to-market activities. “There are some kinds of applications that will only run on the NEC controller,” Zhu explained, “and some that will only run on the HP controller, but the key to value delivered by the partnership is the wealth of options that will be available to customers of all sizes who are building SDN infrastructure.” The partners’ first target market for joint solutions will be Japan, where NEC has had a lot of success with its SDN controller. When this is combined with HP’s broad portfolio of SDN-enabled switches, Zhu believes the alliance will really accelerate SDN adoption in the Japanese market.
One the NEC and HP integration is fully baked, partners in the global alliance expect to take their joint solutions to additional geographic markets. In terms of engineering collaboration, Zhu believes the development of standards for the Northbound Interface will be critical to driving the industry forward: “this is bigger than HP or NEC. It’s where the SDN industry should be heading as this will really allow application developers to innovate, and allow companies to take advantage of this innovation regardless of the controller they are using.” By building on open standards that transform the SDN environment into a kind of development platform, HP and NEC hope to enable creativity in networking app development that will address some of the challenges business are now tackling in the app-centric IT environments of today. “We are building applications and NEC is building applications,” Zhu explained, “but we believe that the true creativity and innovation will come from the real application vendors – of both networking and business applications. We want the business to be able to go through the SDN controller to program the network. In the SDN world, the SDN-enabled network infrastructure should be invisible, applications should be king.” HP and NEC’s mission is to provide the open network tools and capabilities to enable this work, and thereby emerge as the vendors of choice in this explosive market space.