For Cisco’s SDN strategy look North

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Cisco’s plans to capitalize and perhaps marginalize the emerging software defined networking sector are now in full view, and for those wondering how the world’s largest networking gear maker plans to deal with the commodification of networking gear the answer is in the northbound traffic.

Instead of letting the service providers, especially those who are running giant webscale networks in data centers, dictate the conversation around OpenFlow and software defined networks, Cisco is adapting the concepts to its own world of enterprise buyers and service providers. Much like Juniper, it recognizes the threat to its core business, but its strategy is less about interoperating and more about making sure it can cram as much software value into its hardware and then let developers build network applications on top.

So while the webscale and Open Networking Foundation view of software defined networks centers on the decoupling of the switches and the intelligence required to move packets around the network, Cisco’s vision says as long as customers can access and program that intelligence on the switch why do they need that decoupling?

Most controllers on offer from the likes of Nicira and BigSwitch concern themselves with managing southbound traffic (traffic flowing down the networking stack to the switches and routers) and put all the software brains into controllers they will sell. Cisco indicates it will deliver a Cisco controller, but the real value is in having smart boxes that can talk to the applications north of the switches, not dumb switches and smart controllers.

To that end it’s offering APIs and selling an overlay network that will allow customers to run OpenFlow-based networks as well as their normal networks. Cisco isn’t alone in pushing the overlay concept. Pretty much every networking company out there is either announcing or formulating an overlay product. In some ways this is a rational and good choice, because the number of customers who will rip out and replace their old networking gear with OpenFlow-compliant stuff is pretty thin.

But overlays will offer plenty of opportunity for vendors to generate all kinds of marketing-heavy slide presentations about their software defined networking solutions, that disguise the core shift here. That shift is that thanks to software defined networking, companies can use commodity networking gear, scale out in a flatter network architecture and program the network thanks to a controller. But with a shift this big, adoption and a wholesale move to a new way of networking will take time. And Cisco can afford to wait.

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