Thoughts from Interop 2013: The network has never been more important

Some musings after a long week in Las Vegas at Interop 2013.

Well, the 2013 version of Interop is now in the books and while conventional wisdom dictates that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” I thought there were a number of themes at the show that rose above the general noise of the event and are worth sharing. In no particular order, these themes were:

  • Software Defined Networking (SDN) needs a better definition. It’s amazing to me the number of vendors that now claim to be in the SDN market. It seems that if a vendor is programmable, virtual or software-based, it can claim to be an SDN vendor. When you look at these attributes, who doesn’t fall into one of these categories? And when a definition is so broad that it means everything, it actually means nothing. There’s certainly a common theme that all the vendors talk about – legacy networks are complicated and rigid and this is out of alignment with the rest of IT. How this gets solved is still up for debate, and SDNs will not become a pervasive technology until the debate is at least partially answered.
  • Analytics are hot. The number of vendors showing off the ability to analyze network information was at an all-time high and it’s not just the typical names like Netscout, Gigamon, Riverbed and the like. Almost every Wi-Fi vendor I met with was showing me some cool analytic tool. The network vendors are exporting flow information and even some of the SDN vendors have tossed their hat in this ring. A shout out to ExtraHop, which won best of Interop for its product that allows customers to analyze performance information in the AWS cloud. Now customers can understand the performance of their applications on- and off-premise.
  • The mobility vendors finally get mobility. This may seem like an odd statement but I think up until now, the vendors we think of being “mobile” really didn’t understand what mobility meant. I define mobility as having an application or service with characteristics that are uniquely mobile. This means a mobile application isn’t just a small-screen version of a desktop application. Rather, it’s predictive in nature because it understands who you are, what you are doing, what your location is, what direction you are travelling in, etc. Mobile applications should give users different information depending on the context of their environment. This was the first year I felt that the industry as a whole gets this meaning. We should see tremendous acceleration in the variety and functionality of mobile applications moving forward.
  • Data center networking remains hot. I’m not sure I remember a time in networking where I’ve seen as many new products in a one-year timeframe as we’ve seen in the data center since last year’s Interop. This Interop was highlighted by the release of HP’s FlexFabric switches and Arista’s monster chassis. I certainly don’t except the momentum here to slow down any time soon, and the big winner will be the customer, as there’s never been more choices available.
  • The "good enough" white box switch isn’t good enough. Wasn’t this supposed to be the next big thing? Deploy an SDN and go out and buy a commodity switch? The problem with this is these white boxes have very basic feature sets, aren’t easy to procure and the companies that sell them offer no service. Because of this, a few vendors, such as Pica8 and Plexxi, have jumped up and grabbed some headlines by dropping a quality operating system and offering high levels of support to customers. This gives the customer the best of both worlds – the low-cost rack switch but a quality OS with advanced features coupled with customer support when problems arise.

These themes all roll up into one larger, major theme, and that is that the network has never been more important. Cloud and mobile computing are network-centric compute models and they depend heavily on the network to function. I believe that in progressive organizations, the network is finally getting a seat at the C-level table. The network will play a bigger role in business strategy, and that’s a great trend for the entire industry.

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