This is part 2 of the Open Network Ecosystem Series. To view part 1, click here.
Before the age of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV), there were two main ecosystems in the networking world: Cisco, and everyone else. Now, as SDN and NFV radically change how networking products are built, consumed, sold, and supported, an important new type of networking ecosystem is emerging: the open ecosystem.
In our previous post on open ecosystems, we talked about how SDN and NFV are making partnerships between vendors more critical both for companies themselves and for development of the industry as a whole. Here, we’ll explore how open ecosystems fit into the larger networking picture, what types of businesses can benefit most from them, and what the industry needs from leaders of these new ecosystems.
Defining Networking Ecosystems
In traditional Cisco-centric ecosystems, system partners have provided either networking add-ons that Cisco doesn’t provide (a la Citrix or F5), or adjacent product segments that help further Cisco sales (a la the Cisco Unified Computing System’s combined solution with servers, storage, and virtualization). In “everyone else” ecosystems, vendors have teamed up by necessity to win deals against the dominant Cisco machine, often making for strange bedfellows in the process.
As SDN and NFV have transitioned from the lab to the real world, the ecosystem deck has reshuffled so now ecosystems in the networking world generally fall into one of three categories:
- Cisco-centric: This ecosystem remains largely the same, as partner companies continue to ally themselves with what remains the industry’s largest networking vendor. The big shift here is that now Cisco ecosystems may revolve around either its traditional network stack components or its version of SDN, Cisco ACI.
- EMC/VMware-centric: Since its acquisition of SDN pioneer Nicira in 2012, VMware and its parent company EMC have been developing their own ecosystem to counterbalance Cisco. Their SDN and NFV ecosystem includes vendors like Arista, Citrix, F5, and PAN, which all provide functions that EMC/VMware don’t offer – yet. (Speaking of strange bedfellows, Cisco and EMC, together with VMware, teamed up in 2009 to create the Virtual Computing Environment, or VCE, a converged-infrastructure The awkward alliance finally came to an end this fall when EMC bought out most of Cisco’s share in the venture.)
- Open-centric: This next generation of networking ecosystem will consist of SDN and NFV components provided by different vendors that are in whole or in part built on open source, open standards, and open APIs.
When we look at the 300+ companies in the SDNCentral Directory that are building businesses based off open source, open standards, and open APIs, it’s clear this ecosystem is dominated by no single vendor. It’s also important to note that this ecosystem at times will have VMware or Cisco contributing pieces to an “open” solution for customers, but the entire open ecosystem will not revolve around VMware or Cisco solutions.
Each ecosystem plays an important role in our SDx-driven world, but we find the open-centric ecosystem most interesting and ripe for driving innovation.
Who Can Benefit Most from Open Ecosystems?
Customers we speak to take a very practical stance on networking ecosystems in general and only consider joining them on a per-use-case basis. In fact, at this point of the market’s evolution, decisions about which ecosystem(s) to participate in are usually decided by which solutions customers choose, rather than the other way around. The most suitable ecosystem for any organization and use case will depend largely on what kind of organization you have, or more importantly, what problem you’re trying to solve.
Traditional Large Enterprises and Legacy Networking Use Cases
Larger enterprises usually choose proprietary ecosystems and solutions from Cisco or VMware partly because such organizations tend to prefer pre-designed, pre-tested solutions – and mostly because their existing systems already consist of Cisco or VMware products.
With such a large investment in existing Cisco and VMware solutions, it often makes sense for these organizations to stay in their existing ecosystem(s) and cost-optimize current investments with SDx solutions from those ecosystem providers. In fact, a big value proposition for Cisco and VMware SDN/NFV is that they can make current environments more cost-effective.
For example, many large organizations such as AT&T and Deutsche Bank have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of IT infrastructure that isn’t going anywhere. While they’ve spent years virtualizing the compute portion of their businesses, those gains have been hampered by non-virtualized network hardware. Virtualizing the network component of these environments with SDN and NFV can cost-optimize existing infrastructures to save millions of dollars a year.
Companies Transitioning to Software-Based Business Models
Businesses that use software to transform their existing enterprise or expand into new, software-driven products and services are more likely to pursue offerings that are part of an open-centric ecosystem. These businesses typically fall into two camps: 1) those that build apps on AWS (Amazon Web Services) or Google, and 2) those that design and build custom data centers to support their apps. We often see traditional enterprise and service providers develop new apps on AWS, then transition them to their own data centers or special optimized data centers offered by cloud service providers.
For example, we again turn to AT&T, this time for its Domain 2.0 initiative. Domain 2.0 seeks to transform the company’s networking businesses so they provide services in a way very similar to how Amazon or Google deliver cloud computing services. Now, virtualization is needed for strategic advantage, not just cost-optimization. In this case, the Domain 2.0 team acts as almost a startup within a larger organization, and it has the freedom to make networking decisions without having to worry about legacy systems.
New Software-Driven Companies
Finally, there are the new, upstart businesses like Uber and Airbnb that are using technology to take on incumbents and shake up their industries. These types of companies are designing new IT and network systems based on open source software, standards, and APIs. But when they start their data centers, they are not at the scale of Google, AWS, or Facebook. Since it’s not cost-effective for them to develop their own network infrastructure software, these companies tend to focus on offers that come from suppliers that can support their open technologies in the open-centric ecosystem.
Whereas large enterprises creating new software-driven business within their existing corporate structure are usually market leaders in their verticals and have the size to justify developing software to customize their network infrastructure, upstart organizations are the emerging customers for the next generation of infrastructure. These businesses stand to reap the most benefits most from open ecosystems because they enable businesses to develop and assemble individual components in a way that supports key business goals – whether it’s offering new or differentiated software-driven services (Airbnb), or delivering the same services (transportation via Uber) at either a 10X convenience or 10x cost reduction.
Organizations with the right groundwork in place will be in the best position to leverage open technologies to develop differentiated solutions. To get the most out of open ecosystems, a company first should have a true business need to develop a custom solution, such as using software to differentiate itself from competitors. It then must have the technical resources lined up to take these open technologies and stitch them together to build and maintain custom solutions.
Leading the Way for Developing Open Ecosystems
Open ecosystems of strategic vendor partners are becoming more critical not only for vendors themselves, but also for SDN/NFV adoption as a whole. For open technologies to truly make it mainstream and become a stand-alone ecosystem, the industry needs SDN/NFV leaders to guide standards and open source developments, from code contributors to open source foundation board members. To be an active participate in the Open Ecosystem, networking organizations across the board also need to:
- Make significant investments in validation, certification, and the reference materials needed by customers to evaluate open technologies for adoption of SDN/NFV technologies for their business
- Develop SLAs for specific use cases/combinations of technologies with partners/competitors in the open ecosystem
- Develop combined support offerings similar to the Sun-Oracle-Veritas strategic alliance that proved customers could take pieces from multiple companies and turn three products from separate vendors into a single deployable and supportable solution
An Open Ecosystem at Work
Practically by definition, open ecosystems will come in all sorts of types and flavors. Customers now have the ability to mix and match the best components for their networking needs, and vendors need to adapt to this new reality. Fellow suppliers that may be partners in one ecosystem may turn out to be competitors in another.
For example, while Brocade recently began collaborating with Dell and Intel to deliver NFV solutions for the customer edge, it also is partnering with Wind River, Ciena, HP and others to deliver an NFV platform that meets carriers’ expectations for reliability and availability. Meanwhile, HP has its own SDN AppStore that features SDN solutions the tech giant developed jointly with various independent software vendors.
This is part 2 of the Open Network Ecosystem Series. To view part 1, click here.