IBM and NEC team up to take on Cisco

Cisco can get into servers, but IBM (s ibm) isn’t going to let the networking giant step into IBM’s territory without a fight, and Big Blue knows how to fight. It has teamed up with NEC to deliver an OpenFlow-based controller-and-switch combo that tries to find the sweet spot in software-defined networking between expensive, proprietary gear from Cisco (s csco) or Juniper (s jnpr) and the brand-new, open-sourced stuff that startups and webscale companies are peddling.

IBM and NEC laid out some case studies of real customers using their gear inside their data centers, providing a much-needed affirmation that software-defined networking, and more importantly the OpenFlow protocol, is moving outside academia and trials. The OpenFlow protocol is a way to separate the intelligence required for routing packets in a network from the device actually doing the routing. Using the protocol, one can create a programmable network that is abstracted from the physical hardware underneath, a so-called software-defined network.

I have covered NEC’s efforts in this area and its controller, which handles the actual intelligence inside a software-defined network. IBM’s switch, which it launched last November, handles sending the packets. The two companies are working together to provide a level of hand-holding and predefined networking configurations to enterprise and corporate clients that might otherwise shy away from the nascent OpenFlow protocol and the legion of startups building opportunities around it.

On Tuesday, the two companies said that Stanford, the home of the OpenFlow protocol, is using their gear to make a programmable network campus-wide. Stanford is using the network programmability to provision bandwidth on demand for areas of campus or researchers that need it. Other companies using the IBM and NEC gear are data providers Tervela and Selerity, a financial information provider. For the most part, it sounds like IBM and NEC are trying to help explain what OpenFlow is good for: namely adding the same agility to a company’s networking operations that server virtualization has enabled for its development efforts.

This is a welcome shift from breathless coverage about the benefits of the OpenFlow protocol that dominated last year. Now we are to the point where products are out, and we will finally see what a software-defined network can do. Bandwidth on demand, prioritizing certain types of traffic so they get the most resources, and improvements in network security are all on their way — and for a fraction of the investment made in previous generations of gear.