This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala's blog.

The concept of “software defined networks” (SDNs) has become all the rage in networking over the past year or so. Now, I do believe that the “mouthshare” for SDNs far exceeds the amount of money being spent on it, but it’s clear, from the inquiries I get from network managers trying to understand what SDNs are and if they’re applicable for their organizations, that SDNs will be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The majority of the SDN push has been by startups, such as Arista, Nicera and Big Switch or lesser-known network vendors like NEC, but this week, the high-performance network specialist Brocade unveiled its SDN strategy, making it the first mainstream vendor to give product-level details of its SDN plans. Back in June of 2010, Brocade was the first traditional network vendor to publicly announce support for OpenFlow and SDN, so its product announcements show consistency with this strategy.

Brocade highlighted a number of details outlining its SDN strategy, including the following:

  • Integrated hardware-based OpenFlow support in its MLX routers and NetIron platforms to enable SDNs at wire-speed 100 Gig Ethernet. While the market for 100 Gig-E is relatively small, some of the companies looking at it are cloud providers where OpenFlow and SDN have had early appeal.
  • Integration of SDN with Brocade’s VCS Ethernet Fabric technology. This integration will allow customers to move VMs with zero manual configurations, including network policies. Additionally, customers can manage and program the multiple switches that comprise the fabric as one logical switch.
  • Brocade announced the ability to deliver OpenFlow in a hybrid mode. This is a unique feature that allows its customers to run an OpenFlow-based SDN and a traditional layer 2/3 network over the same infrastructure. One of the major barriers to SDN and OpenFlow is that deploying organizations need to make a choice and run OpenFlow or a traditional network so the ability to do both lets customers migrate to OpenFlow instead of having to do a hot cut over.
  • A set of open APIs that allow programmatic control of its network infrastructure with OpenFlow-based controller vendors. As evidence of this, NEC and Brocade issued a joint press release announcing where customers can build an SDN using Brocade’s network products with an OpenFlow controller from NEC. This is similar to what Arista announced last month, highlighting interoperability with a number of OpenFlow controllers.

I liked the news from Brocade in that it was a well-thought-out, comprehensive solution, or more correctly a set of solutions, that offers its customers choice. We’re so early in the cycle of SDN and OpenFlow that it doesn’t make sense for any customer to lock themselves into one particular vendor or approach. The Brocade strategy would allow its customers to run a traditional network and then implement an OpenFlow-based SDN where it needed to. Additionally, customers would also have the choice of bringing in third-party controllers with the assurance of interoperability.

Brocade’s approach of building a product that can easily interoperate with other OpenFlow vendors is the right one for the company. Networking historically has been built on vertically integrated stacks and, if this industry is ever really going to get to the point of having highly programmable networks, this approach needs to stop.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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