Dell, Cisco looking at vendor-led SDN consortiums, but is it too late?

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Dell is joining a growing list of vendors that want to develop their own standard for software-defined networking (SDN), and perhaps dilute the influence of customer-led standards in the data center.

Last week, the nonprofit Object Management Group (OMG) said Dell intends to create an OMG committee on SDN. The Dell news follows rumored moves by Cisco, Citrix, HP and other vendors to sponsor or contribute to a new consortium code-named Project Daylight. Reports of the project surfaced last month, and others have followed.

Vendors’ efforts to set standards boil down to a matter of securing as big a place in the data center as possible. In recent years, webscale companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google have effectively prompted the efforts by moving away from legacy IT vendors and toward custom gear to better fit their needs at the their huge scale.

In 2011, Facebook announced the Open Compute Project, an effort for customers such as Facebook to name their own needs and wants for servers and other data center components. Dell has joined the Open Compute Project. But now not one server going in to Facebook’s newest data center, in the Swedish city of LuleĆ„, comes from a traditional server maker like Dell.

Open Compute isn’t the only new customer-led standards organization. Facebook and several service providers, including Verizon and Comcast, created the Open Networking Foundation in 2011 to build a standard around the OpenFlow networking protocol. Dell’s SDN committee looks like an attempt to ensure a place higher up the stack.

But it could be too late for network-appliance makers to get out in front of enterprises with standards of their own, as SDN startups capture more and more customers and their products become more easily adaptable.

“The networking industry needs clearly defined leadership in the SDN technology space, and Dell is taking an important step to coalesce a standard under OMG through an open, international transparent standards process,” OMG said in the announcement that OMG it released Wednesday. That sort of language probably grates on the ears of Embrane, Pertino and other SDN startups, as they have already made inroads and could have trouble gaining a foothold in a standard with Dell and other hardware-focused players, let alone taking the lead.

As companies throw around new definitions for SDN, it becomes harder to understand what it is, and what it’s not, just like what has happened with the term cloud computing and the variations on it. SDN already has OpenFlow, thanks to the Open Networking Foundation. Do vendors really need to try to challenge those standards? Shareholders might want to see that sort of maneuvering, although it could be too little, too late.

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