Why Not Do SDN Together?

Software-defined networking (SDN) has quickly become one of the hot topics in the computer networking field, and for good reason. It is a very promising technology that, while not perfect, is already being widely used for enterprise network virtualization (along with partner technology NFV). In response, some networking companies have been trying to become the premier supplier of SDN technology; two of these near the top of the list are Cisco and VMware, though they aren’t the only ones. As new companies (including Patton Electronics a few weeks ago) enter the market for SDN/NFV, every company is looking for ways to get ahead of the competition. Traditionally in a high-tech field, the answer would be to develop better technology than your competitors, but some companies have been putting aside their individualistic competitive instincts and solving the problem together. Indeed, there have been multiple instances of this happening within the networking and telecommunications industries within the last month.

While Cisco and VMware are not officially partners, some customers have been using both of their network virtualization products concurrently, which is somewhat of a surprise. The history of Cisco and VMware reveals a years-long competition in the networking arena; for example, both companies introduced network virtualization technologies in November 2013 – Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) and VMware’s NSX. Cisco’s ACI has been the market leader between the two technologies, but as some customers have been realizing, the competition between Cisco and VMware as a whole does not have to translate to competition between these two products. Indeed, Cisco’s ACI is an SDN solution, and VMware’s NSX is an NFV solution, so in some cases they can work together. While there are some cases where only one product would be desired (as the end of this article notes), this is not a guarantee. According to some companies who partner with both Cisco and VMware, some customers appreciate both ACI’s network infrastructure and NSX’s micro-segmentation capabilities. On a more general level, ACI provides a combination of hardware and software to achieve its SDN goals, while NSX is a software-only solution that helps handle virtual machine traffic. It is possible in the future that Cisco and VMware would choose to integrate their products, although that doesn’t seem imminent; but, VMware is identified as one of Cisco’s business partners on a section of Cisco’s website.

Meanwhile, other companies have been forming more formal SDN-related partnerships recently, particularly for mobile-first networking. One of these alliances involves Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and NEC, who have worked together for years. In this case, NEC is the company providing SDN switches and controllers, and these will be integrated with HPE’s vast array of wireless routers and access points. (The Aruba Networks subsidiary of HPE, which sells enterprise WLAN equipment, is also involved in this agreement.) Another recent alliance in the network virtualization field is between China Unicom and ZTE, two giants in the Chinese telecommunications industry. These two companies have come to a long-term agreement, and look to jointly handle many aspects of deploying SDN/NFV together, including testing, product development and research. This agreement comes about 10 months after China Unicom signed a one-year contract with Alcatel-Lucent that was also related to supporting the introduction of NFV/SDN in China Unicom products.