Dell: SDN won't turn enterprise switches into commodity gear for 3-5 years

Software-defined networking will come gradually and share space with current technology for some time, the company said

Software-defined networking won't turn enterprise switches into an inexpensive commodity until three to five years from now, according to Arpit Joshipura, the former Force10 Networks executive who now manages Dell's networking products.

The original promise of SDN (software-defined networking), which puts most higher-level network functions into software, was to make switches into mere forwarding engines that may be interchangeable and cost far less than they do now, said Joshipura, head of product management and marketing at Dell Networking, at a press briefing on Thursday.

"Three years ago, the big driver of SDN was, 'If I do this, I'll get $1,000 switches,'" Joshipura said. However, cheaper gear isn't the current payoff for those deploying SDN, because most implementations will remain in hybrid networks with traditional gear for a long time, he said.

"For the next three to five years, until we get to mainstream SDN, cost is not the primary driver of SDN," Joshipura said.

Today's enterprise switches need to make many decisions on their own, which requires they be equipped with sophisticated, expensive ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits). SDN is designed to eventually put all network decision-making in controllers, which can be implemented in software and run on standard x86 servers. Easier data-center management and new network capabilities are also seen as eventual benefits of SDN.

However, most organizations will migrate to SDN over a long period while holding on to their investments in traditional gear, Joshipura believes. In fact, SDN has barely cracked live deployment so far, being implemented primarily in higher education and in Web companies, he said. Mainstream enterprise adoption will require more enhancements and standardization. "Slowly logic moves out from the switch into a controller," Joshipura said.

IT shops will see benefits along the way, Joshipura said. Most importantly, controllers will make it be easier to provision switches, he said.

Though Dell originally built its business on standardized, price-driven products, namely PCs, it now may have something to fear from commoditization. More than half of the company's business now is based on its own intellectual property, according to Joshipura. Through a series of acquisitions, including its buyout of high-end networking vendor Force10 last year, Dell is now going up against broad-based giants such as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM to supply all the elements of a data center.

When switches do become cheap commodities, Dell has a plan for remaining relevant in that new world of networking, Joshipura said. It wants to extend SDN beyond its current realm to give organizations more flexibility and management capabilities.

Today, through the emerging OpenFlow protocol, SDN has only been standardized between a controller and the so-called data plane, where switches forward packets, he said. Dell wants to offer APIs that reach all the way up to the hypervisor. It plans to optimize its software for the key hypervisors, including VMware's ESX and Microsoft's Hyper-V as well as the open-source OpenStack framework, while remaining hypervisor-agnostic, Joshipura said.

"If you can do that, where you can simplistically connect any of these hypervisors ... into any controller and any switch, now you have the makings of a software-defined network," Joshipura said. If organizations move from ESX to Hyper-V or OpenStack, they will be able to stay with Dell, he said. "Let the giants fight. We will keep our customer value and our secret sauce here," Joshipura said.

Joshipura played up the benefits of Dell's acquisition of Force10. Since the deal closed about a year ago, Dell Networking has increased its investment and workforce in R&D by one-and-a-half times, he said. Just within the former Force10 group, which serves large enterprises, R&D has grown from 400 to 650 employees, he said.

Dell Networking also includes the PowerConnect line, aimed more at smaller customers. Revenue for the whole networking group went up 94 percent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, the division has doubled its force of networking sales specialists.

Also since the acquisition, the Force10 business has doubled its customer base from the approximately 1,400 it had on its own, Joshipura said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service

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