Channel Interest in SDN Products Rises Sharply

By Michael Vizard

Software-defined networking (SDN) represents the next great opportunity for the channel in enterprise networking, as interest in the technology continues to rise sharply. The challenge facing solution providers in the channel is figuring out what might be the best path to pursue to take advantage of that opportunity.

As it stands now, there are multiple classes of SDN products. The first are the hardware-centric offerings that providers of networking switch and router products, including Brocade Networks, Cisco, Extreme Networks, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Juniper Networks, are developing.

Two other hardware camps are emerging. For example, F5 Networks recently added SDN technology to its portfolio via its acquisition of LineRate Systems. F5 Networks has not explicitly said what it will do with that technology, but it is expected to argue that SDN software is better served when it's managed via an application delivery controller (ADC).

At the same time, companies such as Big Switch Networks and Pica8 are making the case for the emergence of a new class of white-box switches based on open SDN software.

For example, Big Switch Networks recently unveiled Switch Light. This open-source software can deployed as a virtual switch on top of a white-box server to create an SDN platform based on the emerging OpenFlow SDN standard, which will compete with SDN platforms based on proprietary Ethernet switches from vendors such as Cisco.

"From a channel perspective, we're focused on managed-service providers and resellers in the higher end of the market," said Andrew Harding, senior director of product marketing for Big Switch Networks. "We think OpenFlow will open up the networking market."

Pica8, meanwhile, developed PicaOS, a network operating system that sits on top of a white-box switch the company markets to make it easier to deploy its SDN technology.

"We're following a white-box mentality," said Steve Garrison, vice president of marketing for Pica8. "For right now, we need to sell a box just to be able to play in the market."

In contrast, other SDN technologies rely on a more software-centric approach. Perhaps the best known of these at the moment is the Nicera SDN technology that VMware acquired last year. VMware announced that later this year it will be integrating Nicera SDN software with its vCloud management platform. That essentially means that it is going to take an approach to SDN that will be specifically optimized for VMware environments.

Other software-centric SDN players include Adara Networks, Embrane, Tail-f Systems and Midokura. The providers of these SDN offerings, which are designed to run across heterogeneous environments, are aggressively moving to build ecosystems across the channel.

Embrane, for example, delivers its SDN technology in the form of a virtual appliance that can run in any hypervisor environment. The company just extended its channel reach by recruiting World Wide Technology (WWT), which added Embrane to a mix of enterprise products that already include Cisco networking equipment.

According to Bob Olwig, vice president of business strategy and marketing for WWT, Embrane is a natural complement to a more hardware-centric approach to SDN that will make it easier for WWT to deploy the technology in heterogeneous environments.

"SDNs are still in their infancy, but based on everything we've heard, we think Embrane will be complementary to both Cisco and VMware," Olwig said.

Embrane CEO Dante Malagrino said one of the challenges that channel partners face when selling SDN is that vendor messages focus too much on revolution and destruction. He said customers want to be able to naturally extend their existing networking environments without being forced into a hardware upgrade or having to standardize on one particular virtual machine environment.

"Customers want to be able to embrace SDN in a way that doesn't necessarily impact their relationship with other vendors," Malagrino said.

Meanwhile, Adara Networks CEO Eric Johnson contends that a true software-centric approach shouldn't be tied to either a physical device or a hypervisor. "SDNs should be truly vendor-agnostic," he said. "In our case, we're not trying to protect legacy systems."

Johnson said heterogeneous approaches to SDNs allow solution providers in the channel to hedge their vendor bets, while also transforming how their IT services practice is organized and delivered. Instead of organizing around servers, storage and networking, solution providers will increasingly be required to provide a more holistic approach to managing converged infrastructure.

"We see SDNs as accelerating the shift toward converged infrastructure," said Johnson.

In addition, he said that as SDNs mature as part of the emergence of programmable virtual data centers, there will be a noticeable shift in how IT organizations allocate their budgets. As products and technologies lower down the stack become more of a commodity, organizations will increase the number of IT projects they can take on. That means more of the IT budget will be allocated to services, which are usually the most profitable part of any engagement for a channel partner.

The emergence of SDNs will be one of the most disruptive events to occur in enterprise networking in recent memory. The challenge facing solution providers is figuring out how to educate customers about SDNs in a way that does more to expand the market.

This article was originally published on 2013-04-02