SDN: Déjà vu all over again?

Having been in this industry longer than I care to think about (I cut my teeth in operations and systems programming on mainframes and early Intel 8080-based ‘microcomputers’), I’ve seen a few technology innovations that were truly disruptive and some that claimed to be but ultimately morphed into something else or were relegated to a niche (remember the Infiniband ‘revolution’ in the early 2000s?). Software defined networking and network functions virtualization clearly threaten to upset the status quo, which in this case, is the vast ecosystem of hardware-based switched and routed networks, and the network equipment manufacturers who build the gear. Cisco, arguably, has the most to lose, but potentially, the most to win also.

In Peter Burrows’ recent Bloomberg article, reflecting how SDN has become mainstream news, he points out that the existing market for switches and routers is growing at the very modest rate of three percent a year. While this business is the lifeblood of companies like Cisco, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei, it is becoming commoditized with downward price pressure and diminishing technological differentiation. These players can certainly benefit from SDN, but it remains to be seen how well they will adapt to the new market forces, including threats from non-traditional competitors like VMware. They will need to leverage their existing customer bases to introduce new technologies while protecting traditional revenue streams.

Production SDN deployments will not be ubiquitous for years, but a number of major network service providers worldwide (as well as mega-network enterprises and ‘Web 2.0 companies,’ like the ones mentioned in the Bloomberg article) are already designing and building SDNs. They are driving suppliers to move fast in providing available SDN-ready components. And they are asking for more than just OpenFlow-enabled gear: Management and orchestration software – which in Packet Design’s view of the SDN world is critical to the successful realization of SDN’s business agility and economic benefits – is high on the list. This is interesting and encouraging because so often in the past, the availability of robust COTS management software has trailed the introduction of new information technologies and ultimately slowed their adoption.

This and more will be discussed and debated next week in Chicago. Light Reading, the popular and respected communications technology industry media outlet and research business, will be hosting its inaugural Big Telecom Event (BTE). Given that this is a brand new event, I’m both curious and excited to see how it works out. I must say, Stephen Saunders and his team have compiled an impressive roster of speakers and panelists covering an array of topics that promise to be informative, educational, and occasionally controversial. And the number of registered attendees, which has far exceeded expectations, reflects the interest in the subject matter and the quality of the conference agenda. Packet Design is an event sponsor and will participate in a panel on SDN and NFV Management and Orchestration, moderated by Heavy Reading’s senior analyst, Caroline Chappell. The event’s exhibition hall will also offer insights into the real progress being made by the vendor community in new technology areas, including SDN, because BTE’s organizers are emphasizing product demonstrations and discouraging flashy marketing and hype. We’ll be sure to provide some highlights from the event in this blog.