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Alcatel-Lucent focuses on practical SDN

The company's approach to software-defined networking puts its value on use cases, and rightfully so.

Last week, Alcatel-Lucent (ALU) held its annual Industry Analyst conference in Annapolis, Maryland. Unified Communications has historically been the primary focus for ALU’s go-to-market strategy, but the company has spent the last few years beefing up its OmniSwitch data networking portfolio as well. In fact, if you recall, ALU was the focal point of this Network World Article where the company beat out Cisco for a network project in its own home state.

Like every other network vendor, ALU has been trying to jump on the market opportunity created by the rise and complexity of server virtualization. I recently did some research that pointed out that a small amount of server virtualization saves both capex and opex. However, highly virtualized environments, meaning those that are more than 50% virtualized, have actually seen operational costs rise by as much as 20%. High amounts of server virtualization create unpredictable traffic flows that can wreak havoc on the network.

Solving this problem isn’t easy. In fact, two weeks ago, I was in a roundtable discussion with a number of IT leaders at IT Roadmap – Boston on the topic of data center evolution. Much of the conversation focused on blind spots and network challenges created by virtualization. The IT leaders in the roundtable were also unanimous in their struggles to find a solution to the problem. The reason they can’t find solutions is because traditional network infrastructure just isn’t well aligned with the world of applications.

This thesis is the foundation of ALUs “Application Fluency” vision. ALU first introduced this vision about three years ago and based it on three pillars: automation, a resilient architecture, and simplified operations. ALU’s application fluency is based on a network that is capable of recognizing application flows and automatically adjusting configuration parameters to enable the best possible user experience.

In the context of the data center, ALU’s data center fabric can reconfigure itself to VM movement without the need for network operations to do any manual configuration management. Extending the application-fluent vision requires understanding a greater breadth of applications and reach across the data center, and the company is looking for SDNs to help deliver the additional functionality.

The goal of being able to deliver higher levels of automation across the data center and even out to the campus depends on having a programmable network, one of the foundational principals of a software defined network. ALU will enable programmability through the use of RESTful API’s, OpenFlow 1.3, and OpenStack. The APIs hold the most short-term promise with the OpenFlow and OpenStack support being investments that should pay future dividends as ALU can work into other ecosystems.

I like the approach ALU is taking, as the APIs enable a closed loop that allows control commands to be passed down from the application layer, through the compute layer down to the network to automate manual tasks that are needed to manage the performance of various applications. The company gave me an example of being able to move large media files for processing purposes across the network. As the move is triggered, the application tells the network to create a large, virtual path for the traffic. Once the move is completed, the virtual path is torn down.

While much of the network industry is mired in trying to use SDNs to create new business models and redefine the entire networking industry, ALU is searching for small, practical use cases to show the value. As a minority share player in networking, ALU’s focus on the use cases is the right focus as the industry is void of good examples of what SDNs can do for the mass market.

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