Commodity hardware will be hallmark of SDN networks

Riverbed researcher says hardware used to run networks of the future will get less and less important

Don’t get too attached to your specialized network hardware – you’re not going to need it in the future, says one researcher.

As networks get more and more abstract, the hardware used to run them will get less and less important, according to Riverbed’s Steve Riley, who spoke Wednesday at Interop. So much so, in fact, that users will eventually need nothing but standard x86 gear.

Riley is a technical director in the office of the CTO, but he’s also a part of what’s called the Strategic Technology Group at Riverbed. He describes the job as “getting paid to think” about the company’s products, customers and competitors.

“Do I think the hardware plays any role [in Software Defined Networking]? No. … All the intelligence is handled in software, all the intelligence is handled in generic machines – the role of the hardware is to move a datagram from one interface to the other – that’s it,” he said during his presentation. “The hardware is told what to do by the protocols that live above it.”

Those protocols in this case are collectively referred to as SDN, though Riley also argued that the term is often misapplied. While the basic idea of divorcing the control plane from the forwarding plane in networking is an important one, the term SDN has gotten so much industry attention that it’s often – erroneously, says Riley – applied to any technology used to automate provisioning, even outside of the network layer.

“Network virtualization is the more interesting thing – SDN is a tool that gets us there, but is it the same thing as server virtualization? Not really,” he said.

The hardware that goes in an Azure data center is whitebox, dumb-assed routers and switches

— Steve Riley

The abstraction of hardware into programmable infrastructure at the network level is the essential advantage of SDN – but this requires both the ability to make intelligent decisions on how to route connections and enough consistency and transparency to work seamlessly with other layers, according to Riley.

All of this, apparently, will happen in software. He highlighted Microsoft’s Azure data centers as evidence of this trend.

“The hardware that goes in an Azure data center is whitebox, dumb-assed routers and switches,” he said. “They’re not making any decisions.”

So where does this leave Riley’s employer Riverbed, which is a manufacturer of specialized network management and optimization hardware? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s still bullish.

“We largely do two things in the network. One of the things we do is provide network and application server services that improve performance and availability, and these classical Riverbed product lines … they operate at a layer above where SDN goes,” he tells Network World in a separate conversation. “Regardless of what an organization might choose do to their network virtualization with, there will still be opportunities to insert performance-enhancing and availability-enhancing technologies.”

Indeed, Riverbed has pushed heavily into the virtual end of its market of late, releasing a platform for public-cloud application delivery  at Interop and acquiring application performance management firm OPNET in a billion-dollar deal late last year.

That acquisition, which has contributed a key piece to Riverbed’s performance management division, could prove critical to the company’s future prospects, notes Riley.

“I see Riverbed being able to bring a lot of value to this at the controller layer itself, with our RPM business unit,” he says.

Email Jon Gold at and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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