The growth of software-driven cloud networking technologies, cloud computing, and software-defined networking (SDN) is driving new ways to design networks, a movement that is referred to as software-driven cloud networking.
A key requirement of software-driven cloud networking is that networking hardware and software be relatively open and interoperable, so that the software platforms can be easily installed or moved across industry-standard hardware. This enables portability and programmability of the networking infrastructure.
One of the cornerstones of software-driven cloud networking is that it will be based on industry-standard hardware, often referred to as Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS). By using a low-cost infrastructure, Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) can lower capital expenditures (capex) and operating expenditures (opex) by reducing complexity.
Software-driven cloud networking has gained popularity as a marketing term as well as a technology strategy. Separating the hype from the reality can be challenging. A pure software-driven cloud networking system would use generic COTS servers, industry-standard networking processor chips, an SDN operating system based on Linux, and open-source software. However, as in many technology markets, there are many technology companies pushing their own flavors of SDN and software-driven cloud networking.
For example, Arista Networks has used the term software-driven cloud networking to describe its own products, even though it uses proprietary systems. Cisco Systems has moved to using more industry-standard networking processors in its switches and routers, but it also has its own operating system, IOS, whish is proprietary and can only be programmed by trained Cisco network engineers. The industry marketing wars will be focused on whether dominant, proprietary vendors such as Arista and Cisco are really developing software-defined cloud networking, or whether they are using it as a marketing term to describe their own proprietary products.
A new crop of SDN-focused companies, including Cumulus, Big Switch, and Pica8, are marketing Linux-based operating systems that can be installed on COTs hardware. Dell is pursuing a similar model, in which it acts as the distributor of COTs hardware. In the Dell model, the customer can chose the SDN software to load on the COTs hardware, and Dell provides services and support. This is known as the “white box” model.
How Software-Driven is Your Cloud?
Why does interoperability matter? The concept of software-driven cloud networking derives from the massive, “Webscale” cloud providers such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which took commodity hardware parts and built their own data centers by tying these components together with a combination of software, much of which is based on open source. In this model, the cloud providers did not care who was supplying hardware, as long as it met certain specs. Another key element is the fact that most of the software value was created internally, so they did not always see the need to pay the for the licensing of proprietary OSes.
Software-driven cloud networking is likely to make people rethink how they buy networking hardware and software. Does it even need to be purchased together? This has been the common model for networking systems in the past, and it is now being brought into question. The industry trend is to “disaggregate” hardware and software and give customers more flexibility in building and programming their own networks.