When it comes to the cloud and data center, few organizations have a footprint bigger than Microsoft's. From consumer-facing services like Outlook and Xbox Live to enterprise-focused applications like Office 365, from Windows Server and Hyper-V all the way up through the Windows Azure public cloud, Microsoft knows scale. According to Rajeev Nagar, Windows Datacenter Networking and Platform Team Group Program Manager, Microsoft also knows the software defined data center. While at the Open Networking Summit, I sat down with Nagar to talk vendor missteps and Microsoft's cloud and networking philosophy.
"There is a lot of focus on mechanism"—too much, in fact.
After a widely acknowledged decade of stagnation, the networking industry has exploded in the last several years, in large part thanks to the advent of the cloud, software defined networking, and network virtualization. It makes for a complex and competitive landscape, with startups vying to snatch a slice of the pie away from veteran industry giants. I asked Nagar for his thoughts on the state of the industry, from his perspective within an incumbent. After some thought, he said, "There is a lot of focus on mechanism."
Without naming names, Nagar specified a particular, "rather large" competitor. According to him, "They sometimes approach things with a perspective that says 'If I have a hammer, everything must be a nail.' In other words, somebody says, 'I have network virtualization. And by definition, network virtualization solves the world's problems. You, the consumer, don't need to worry about the underlay, because network virtualization is in it.'"
This tunnel-vision focus on a single mechanism within the broader picture is counterproductive, Nagar thinks. So, too, is the conflation of certain protocols with the overall concept of SDN. "You might have somebody else basically saying, 'I implement OpenFlow, and therefore, by definition, I have SDN.'" Mistaking technological innovation for business value and monetization is another on his list of missteps. So is taking too seriously the "ideological battles around whitebox vendors vs. vertically integrated players."
That last has been a common theme in conversations at ONS 2014. Even Cisco's presence on the expo floor couldn't stop attendees (and some keynote speakers and panelists) from taking thinly veiled potshots at the vendor's approach to SDN.
"Those ideological battles are not really worthwhile right now," Nagar said, stressing the responsibility of the vendor community to collaborate and "foster a cycle of innovation." He added that "we are not that caught up in those mechanisms." Microsoft is focused on something else.
Microsoft's approach to the software defined data center
A lot of people talk about the software defined data center, but Microsoft, Nagar said, "actually walks the walk." The company has to. According to Nagar, Windows Azure alone involves tens of thousands of physical machines (a conservative estimate) and over 250,000 customers; it adds a thousand new tenants every day and performs tens of thousands of network changes daily. Add in the rest of Microsoft's cloud operations, and the total is a data center deployment on what he describes as "gargantuan" scale. Only Google, Amazon, and a few other organizations can compare.
"We cannot operate at that scale if we did not deploy a software defined data center, which encompasses software defined compute, storage, and networking. We live, eat, and breathe software defined," Nagar said. That means not just as a solutions developer, but also as a solutions consumer, since the infrastructure that Microsoft ships is the infrastructure Microsoft uses to service all those hundreds of thousands of customers. From that point of view, Microsoft is "very focused on being all about the application." It's the business value that matters.
"SDN as part of the software defined data center is the mechanism by which business realize value like flexibility, agility, and mobility," he said. To succeed, SDN vendors—and the networking industry as a whole—must focus on that value, rather than on individual mechanisms, technological innovations, or ideological battles around commodity hardware and closed, proprietary systems. "And as far as monetization is concerned, over time, as long as vendors deliver the right value to their customers, they will figure out a way to position themselves and get value back from customers," Nagar said.
Common sense? It sounds like it, but my walk through the ONS 2014 expo floor earlier today showed otherwise. Representatives at several different vendors' booths struggled to articulate the practical business value of the applications they were showcasing.
For enterprises looking to adopt the new, exciting software defined technologies, the takeaway is clear: when you're looking at hammers, don't get caught up in how flashy the hammers are. Make sure they suit your nails.
Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Jude Chao is managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.