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What Cisco ONE means for Cisco's future in SDN

Cisco outlined its software-defined networking (SDN) approach at Cisco Live 2012. Here are the main takeaways.

There was no hotter topic at Cisco Live 2012 than software defined networks (SDN). The industry has been talking about the concept of SDN for a couple of years now but customer interest in it seems to be at an all-time high. Many of the primary network vendors have outlined their SDN strategy and Cisco used its user event, Cisco Live, to outline its strategy.

RELATED: Cisco on why OpenFlow alone doesn't cut it

SDN/OpenFlow has Cisco jumping

At the conference the company announced Open Network Environment (ONE), its approach to network programmability. Cisco ONE is similar to other SDN announcements I’ve seen over the past several months but broader than most. The focus from most in the industry has been on the control plane and data plane. Cisco’s ONE solution is a combination of agents, APIs, controllers and overlay technologies to bring programmability to each layer of the network stack. Cisco ONE starts at the transport layer and extends through the management and orchestration layer. This approach allows Cisco to bring a high level of programmability to the network with or without OpenFlow, and with a high level of customization.

Cisco ONE includes a software developer kit, One Platform Kit (OnePK), which brings programmability across Cisco’s switch and routing operating systems, including IOS, IOS-XR and NX-OS.

I like Cisco’s announcement for a number of reasons. First, the vision is broader than what you see from the competitive landscape. It’s ambitious to say the least, but it’s very comprehensive. One of the criticisms I’ve had regarding Cisco over the past few years is that the company has let other vendors dictate the terms of competition, putting them in a weak position. The WAN Optimization (Riverbed) and Application Delivery Controller (F5) markets are great examples of this. The SDN market is still in its infancy and Cisco has set a high bar for the other network vendors. Cisco can use its relative enormity over the field to flex its muscles and put itself in a position that others will have a hard time following. Frankly, I’m not sure why the company doesn’t do this more often.

The other reason I like this approach by Cisco is that customers can migrate to it as they upgrade their networks over a period of time. The fact that Cisco’s SDN strategy spans all of its major operating systems also means Cisco ONE will appeal to almost all of Cisco’s massive customer base. Cisco can start customers down the path now and expand it as the solution matures.

I also think Cisco has an excellent opportunity in the management space. Cisco ONE includes the management and orchestration layer for which there are few, if no, comprehensive tools available today. I talked to a number of customers at Cisco Live that want Cisco to provide the management software. Management isn’t something Cisco has exactly excelled at in the past, but the company does seem to be a doing a better job of late and the opportunity is there.

There were a few questions about Cisco ONE left unanswered to me. First, this appears to be a huge undertaking. Can Cisco really provide a consistent set of APIs, controllers and agents to all three operating systems? The operating systems also have different release trains, so does each release train need specific tweaks? Cisco is big and has a lot of engineering talent, but this does appear to be a rather hefty task.

Additionally, the success of this approach depends on Cisco’s ability to create a developer, or at least an administrator, community. While Cisco has talked about the “Cisco Developer Network (CDN),” the company has openly discussed its challenges in building this in the past. If Cisco’s SDN is going to work, CDN needs to get going.

Lastly, what about Insieme? The stealth mode startup, expected to be Cisco’s next “spin in,” is doing something in the SDN space, we just don’t know what. Considering the job openings are all for chip designers, it would stand to reason there’s something proprietary being built.

Despite all of the open questions, I think Cisco ONE is the right strategy for the company with regards to SDNs. It’s aggressive, it’s broad, and it allows Cisco to leverage its almost monopoly-like market share.

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