Software defined networking (SDN) looks to be the next game in town for enterprise architects. But whether you think this is really something new or just a new name for the dynamic data infrastructure or utility computing models that have been floating around for years, one thing is clear: actual products are starting to take shape, so the time is right to start the handicapping.
Oracle's acquisition of I/O fabric developer Xsigo and VMware's buyout of advanced networking specialist Nicira are two recent advances worth noting. Both moves were widely hailed as the launching point for SDN because they both promise the ability to decouple networking resources from underlying hardware, offering the tantalizing capability of building up and tearing down virtual networks in much the same way most enterprises manage their virtual servers.
On the surface, the more intriguing match-up is between Oracle and Xsigo, both because Xsigo is more well-known that Nicira and because it provides a powerful virtual LAN component to an already robust hardware/software Oracle environment. The company's I/O Director enables a virtual layer of connectivity between servers, Ethernet infrastructure and storage that is ostensibly designed to improve traffic flow between these elements as virtualization ramps up, but it can also be used to quickly rework network pathways as conditions change. In this way, Oracle gets a dynamic networking architecture that can more easily adjust to the free-flowing data environments characterized not only by virtualization, but by the cloud and mobile computing as well. At the same time, I/O Director eliminates the need for much of the Layer 2 topography in many current network environments, which only works to Oracle's benefit at the expense of top competitors like Cisco.
One thing missing from this picture, however, is a clear path to multi-vendor interoperability. Oracle has said that it will offer solutions for non-Oracle environments, although its track record in this regard is not stellar. And it's here that VMware might have a leg up when it comes to integrating SDN into the wider enterprise universe.
Nicira is a key backer of the OpenStack project aimed at interoperable cloud architectures, as well the Open vSwitch system that brings SDN to the new Linux kernel. In this way, it is considered more of a pioneer in the SDN field in that it adds a software component to the movement of data packets across networks. Software, of course, is much easier to manipulate than hardware, which is likely to give VMware a little more flexibility when it comes to managing virtual networks. What's more, with OpenStack backers like IBM, HP, Dell and Rackspace supporting they key components of what will be VMware's SDN portfolio, enterprises should have a much easier time integrating various systems into their own cloud architectures and then tying them to public clouds elsewhere.
In a way, then, this is shaping up to mirror the old Mac vs. PC debate. On one side an integrated hardware/software platform that offers streamlined performance and simplified deployment; on the other, a broad-based architecture that provides all the advantages, and headaches, of a multivendor environment.
And as for which solution provides superior performance? Well, we'll just have to wait until the benchmarking begins.
Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.