SDN in 2014: More of everything

More development, more deployments, more products, more applications, more deals, more money

Last year saw tons of activity in software-defined networking, including the introduction of Cisco's response to the hardware-marginalizing trend. This year promises to be no different for SDN.

Last year saw tons of activity in software-defined networking, including the introduction of Cisco's response to the hardware-marginalizing trend. This year promises to be no different.

We can expect an expansion and elongation of the trends we saw in 2013 – more implementations by end users, more work on standardizing SDN APIs, more deployments of leading vendors’ products, like Cisco’s Cisco ONE and VMware’s NSX, more vendor customization, more industry consolidation and more killer applications.

I expect that 2014 will be a rubber-meets-the-road for SDN.

— Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group

“It really seems like potential customers have reached their limit with SDN hype and are now in more of a Missouri state of mind – that being 'show me' that everything that we have been talking about actually works and let me talk to references,” says Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “So I expect that 2014 will be a rubber-meets-the-road for SDN, and vendor solutions will be put to the test to see if reality meets or exceeds expectations. Given this environment, organizations will really need to deliver.”

+ MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: A list of all the Outlook 2014 stories | Where we stand with SDN +

All of this activity will help drive the SDN market beyond $3 billion in the next two or three years, according to research from IDC and Infonetics Research. IDC believes it will reach $3.7 billion by 2016, while Infonetics is a little more conservative, with a forecast of $3.1 billion by 2017

Catalyzing it will be customers. In 2013, pioneers and early adopters such as Marist College, Bloomberg, Henry Ford Health System, and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center shared their early experiences with SDN.

The new year should bring more war stories, and some will include tales of more stable implementations, and the applications that ride on top of them. Cisco expects security automation, analytics and mobility enablers to be among the killer SDN apps for 2014.

ESG’s Laliberte agrees on security.

“Security…has consistently ranked as the top network challenge throughout this year and is top of the list for SDN solutions,” he says. “I would also expect solutions around WAN optimization and [application delivery controllers].”

Other solutions will come from the ecosystem partners of the major SDN vendors, Laliberte says. He expects those ecosystems to be a major source of expansion in 2014.

“We need to see the fruits of the partner ecosystems that were announced, so it would be great to see validated solutions coming to market based on multiple vendor ecosystems,” he says. “Perhaps consumerization of IT takes hold in networking, and this takes the form of network app store as HP suggested earlier this year.”

This may be aided by a standard northbound API from the SDN controller to the orchestration systems and applications, Laliberte says. The OpenDaylight consortium is working on such an API, as is the Open Networking Foundation, which announced its intentions very recently.

Brocade believes customers will include these as checklist items for 2014 purchases.

“Although it may still be too early for full SDN deployments, a key decision-making criteria for infrastructure will be to ensure that infrastructure will support SDN going forward,” the vendor says. “Open architecture will be key to this future-proof strategy.”

But Laliberte believes SDN application developers may not wait for a standard before embarking on their work.

“I would anticipate that ecosystem partners will not wait for a standard to integrate their solutions where they believe a first mover advantage will yield significant market share gains,” he says.

Indeed, further vendor-specific customization of SDN platforms – which include developers writing to non-standard APIs – are expected in 2014. The advent of SDNs a few years ago brought a lot of open standard hyperbole with it.

But now that vendors acknowledge the demand for SDN, they’re likely to do whatever they can to get customers to buy, and keep buying, their offerings.

Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches and Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) fabric, for example, are widely regarded to be Cisco-unique, or proprietary programmable network products. Cisco is expected to ship the lion’s share of its Nexus 9000 line in 2014, as well as the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) for programming the switches.

The Nexus 9000 includes merchant silicon as well as Cisco-developed custom ASICs, and the APIC for ACI is a Cisco-unique development as well. Cisco will sell the Nexus 9000s in two modes: standalone and ACI-mode. Standalone will leverage the merchant silicon and allow customers to pick and choose – and integrate themselves – open source software and SDN controllers, like OpenDaylight and others that support OpenFlow.

ACI-mode will leverage Cisco ASICs and APIC, and deliver the full value of an ACI fabric -- hardware acceleration, deep visibility into application interaction and behavior, and granular service level metrics.

But customers may demand that their suppliers come to some open middle ground with SDN. Whatever customized direction a vendor takes, a potential buyer might pull them in another.

“In 2014, customers will want vendors to bring order to the chaos and show the industry how SDN should be implemented,” says Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management for Dell Networking. “In a fragmenting market with numerous open source and open standards efforts, and competing vendor strategies, customers will vote with their wallets. Smart vendors will follow. Customers will force networking vendors to agree on a more cooperative, open approach that will make SDN practical and real.”

Cisco says it already has 305 “serious” customers for ACI at deals ranging from $100,000 to $100 million. Network virtualization rival VMware also has a cadre of high profile customer for its NSX product, including eBay, Rackspace and AT&T. 

Analysts expect NSX implementations to be among those that accelerate in 2014.

“VMware's NSX [will] achieve a number of customer wins in accounts where VMware already has a presence,” says IDC’s Brad Casemore.

“I would expect not only more NSX deployments, but more network virtualization solutions in general to be deployed given the large number of network virtualization announcements in 2013,” says Laliberte. “I would also expect to see Microsoft HyperV network virtualization make its presence felt in 2014 as multi-hypervisor environments expand.”

On the commodity white-box switching front, where proponents include Google and Facebook, Casemore expects further inroads in those types of hyperscale and cloud data centers, but it can only break out of that rarefied neighborhood – and into the enterprise -- with support from a major IT player.

Casemore also expects SDN to make further inroads into the enterprise next year.

“We will see some adoption of campus SDN, including some impressive deployments with regard to scale and scope,” he predicts.

In the service provider world, Casemore expects Juniper and Nuage Networks to compete aggressively for network virtualization overlay business in carrier accounts with their respective Contrail and VSP offerings

Brocade, too, predicts network functions virtualization (NFV) will gain significant traction in carrier network next year.

“NFV will gain prominence and drive new revenue opportunities for service providers by pulling managed services into the cloud, drastically reducing costs and increasing service agility,” the vendor said.

And finally, Casemore expects some significant deal making to occur in the SDN market in 2014. Arista Networks, which markets itself as a software-defined cloud networking vendor, has plans to go public many in the industry believe.

Something like that will happen with Arista and others, Casemore believes.

“Arista's IPO finally comes to pass . . . or the company is acquired, perhaps by an IT vendor not currently a major player in networking,” he says. “We will see at least one significant M&A event in networking in 2014.”

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy. 

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