This syndicated post originally appeared at Network World Zeus Kerravala.

As the SDN market shakes out, the companies that
can help companies bridge the gap with traditional
networks will be in a good position.

As hot as the topic of software defined networking (SDN) has been over the past few years, many organizations have stayed away from it. It’s not because SDNs don’t provide value, but because the technology can be quite disruptive to network operations. Most of the network managers and even IT leaders I interview seem to have a good grasp on the long-term value that SDN can bring, but there’s a fear that the operational challenges it creates may outweigh the benefits.

One of the challenges that organizations face when deploying a software defined network (SDN) is bridging the traditional network with the SDN. Traffic on a traditional network moves around based on the rules established in layer 2/layer 3 networking. OpenFlow, on the other hand, uses different protocols, custom policies, and a different set of rules to determine network behavior.

Neither of these approaches to moving packets on a network can be considered better than the other – they’re just different. The challenge for networking teams, though, is building and maintaining these two networks independently. Many network managers I’ve interviewed have stayed away from SDN because the operational challenges of running two networks outweigh the benefits it can bring.

Pica8, one of the leaders in open systems for SDNs, today announced CrossFlow Networking. CrossFlow is a new feature in the PicOS bare metal switch OS that enables network managers to integrate OpenFlow applications and business policies with existing layer 2/layer 3 networks. In a sense, Pica8 is acting as the “Rosetta stone” for networking, enabling an SDN and a traditional network to understand each other.

By leveraging CrossFlow, Pica8 customers can run layer 2/layer 3 protocols and OpenFlow protocols on the same switch at the same time. Organizations that use CrossFlow can leverage the strengths of each type of network, enjoying the best of both worlds. OpenFlow can be used for policy-driven applications to bring business logic to the network. The traditional network can optimize packet transport and performance with protocols, such as OSPF, Spanning Tree, and BGP.

A good example where this might be useful is in a data center where the layer 2/layer 3 network can be monitored and tapped and data gathered. The information can then be analyzed and a rule can be created using the Open Flow protocol that can be triggered based on an event defined by business policy.

The flexibility gained by integrating OpenFlow with legacy network infrastructure and layer 2/layer 3 protocols can significantly reduce operational complexity, cutting into the big spend in running networks. Opex currently accounts for about 40% of network TCO, so CrossFlow attacks the biggest pain point for most organizations.

Pica8 has made CrossFlow available in PicOS version 2.4 and allows every port on its switches to be configured as a legacy port or a CrossFlow port. Also, CrossFlow is fully compatible with all Open vSwitches.

There are many startups today in the world of SDN, including Pica8 and companies like BigSwitch and Cumulus. The next year or so will be critical to the long-term survival of these companies, and the ones that can break through the white washing of the incumbent vendors will be well-positioned. The CrossFlow switch is certainly unique and gives Pica8 a good migration story and differentiated message. CrossFlow enables early adopters to push forward with SDN and use OpenFlow where it makes sense, instead of having to wait and cut everything over before the organization is ready.

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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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