Does SDN bring with it the type of innovation the original iPhone brought? Innovation takes much more than just really great technology. It’s having the right technology that disrupts the status quo and enables uses that couldn’t be predicted. For example, the iPhone revolutionized the way we look at the smart phone. Prior to the iPhone you couldn’t convince my wife that a smartphone could completely replace her MP3 player, HP IPAQ and Mobile Phone. Apple wasn’t sure (or right) about how the application model would look on the iPhone but they knew the existing model didn’t work.
Prior to the current generation of smart phones, I didn’t even consider the smartphone experience to be substandard. My Palm Treo was the height of the technology and looking back and comparing the technologies, it’s amazing to see how wrong the industry had it.
I’m asking the question if SDN is the enterprise equivalent to the original iPhone. Is it solving problems in ways we never thought and enabling a slew of applications we never thought possible? SDN proponents have called the traditional approach to networking “a big bag of protocols.” Meaning we’ve always just looked at the problem from the challenges and limitations of our protocol based approach.
The industry has traditionally taken a hardware first approach to solving protocol related issues. Looking back in history, as the BGP routing table for the Internet got bigger the solution was to add more memory to edge routers. It was when it became too impractical to keep adding memory just for route tables that route summarization helped make sense of the true problem. Just improving the specs on the hardware was building a better Palm Treo. The industry doesn’t just need better network devices. The industry needs a different way to look at networking.
Is SDN that new and better way of looking at networking? Is SDN the iPhone-like paradigm shift the industry needs to develop a whole new set of apps that have not been possible without a new model?
There’s a lot of excitement around SDN. I can’t seem to write or talk about this topic enough. My most popular TechTalk segments are on SDN. At VMworld, the hottest topic was VMware’s SDN play, NSX. The media, customers and bloggers are intensely monitoring the conversation on Cisco vs. VMware SDN strategies. But, excitement alone doesn’t bring industry wide change. Organizations have to see tangible benefits to technology in order to implement it. Network departments have to see a clear value proposition for implementing disruptive technologies such as SDN. Thinking about what a virtual network SME looks like alone gives me perspective in the difficulty of convincing an enterprise to undertake an SDN transformation. How many networking SME’s with virtualization expertise are out on the market?
What is the value proposition?
Both VMware and Cisco, who have the mindshare on the SDN topic right now, are talking similar benefits. According to both vendors, SDN is all about cloud, big data, operational flexibility and agility. Looks like they are covering all of the hot buzz words.
The reality is that these applications and operational challenges are great examples of the promise of SDN even in the current state of the technology. The less obvious but I believe more important value of SDN is in the applications we have yet to realize are possible. Without the innovation of today’s smartphone, none of the new mobile economy would be possible. This is the true promise of SDN. Today’s network limits our vision in the same way that yesterday’s smart phone limited the vision of mobile application developers. SDN is the potential starting point for applications that are just not possible with today’s network. I’m going to be honest and say, I’m not sure what applications will be built or what the model for building the applications will look like in a mature model. It’s a similar lesson from the iPhone; we don’t know what will get created until we deliver the capability into the hands of the developers.