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The Sandwich…Network Virtualization Main Stage at Interop

This morning I’m joining representatives from Microsoft and Broadcom onstage as part of a keynote panel in front of hundreds of Interop attendees in Las Vegas. We’ll be discussing the trends shaping the future of networking. In particular, we’ll be talking about how software vendors are playing a more significant role in the networking discourse as a layer of network functionality is emerging at the software edge, and how merchant silicon vendors are fueling the architectural shift to general-purpose network hardware in the datacenter. I wrote about these trends in more detail in a previous post.

It will be an interesting mix on stage. VMware and Microsoft do not have a strong history of agreement, so it is nice to see alignment on, and recognition of, a common trend. Also, having server software vendors share the stage with a network silicon vendor would seem unnatural. The reality is, however, that this new trend in network architecture is exactly about software at the edge and the dramatic increase in price/performance in the physical network, which is being driven by the merchant silicon vendors.

With this in mind, I’m a bit intrigued by how the overall keynotes will unfold. It occurs to me, looking at the schedule, that my panel is sandwiched between the presentations from two big time network hardware vendors, Cisco and Juniper. They will, of course, be sharing perspectives on how customers can benefit from their vision and innovations. But the irony is that our panel highlights a very different sandwich, one in which the software running on the server and the silicon underlying the networking gear are having an ever-increasing role in the discussion.

Without trying to over rotate on this sandwich metaphor, there really is a new, emerging network architecture that has evolved organically in the mega datacenters over the last decade, and is now being adopted throughout the industry. In this architecture, software on the edge, whether it is part of a virtual network overlay, a new web application, Big Data, PaaS, etc. provides functionality that has typically been found in the network. As a result, this software is largely decoupled from the underlying physical network and can be run over any general purpose network hardware that provides IP connectivity.

While there are many benefits to this architecture, such as a software operational model and software innovations speeds, the benefit I would like to highlight in this post is customer choice. A customer can choose to use network hardware from any point in the value chain. This could be from a traditional vendor with custom silicon, from a vendor with custom packaging but using merchant silicon, or from a reseller who is effectively silk screening a whitebox directly from the ODMs. Hardware will continue to differ on cost, performance, manageability, and debugability of the physical gear, but as features such as security, discovery, billing, isolation, load balancing, mobility, service chaining, etc. migrate to software, they are no longer a critical factor in the hardware procurement decision. As the switch supply chain evolves to ever better cost/performance, so does the customers’ ability to consume it without disruption.

It is a very exciting time to be in networking, and I’m having a blast participating in this community. This morning’s panel will be fun, but nothing is more satisfying than knowing that the trends underway – powered by software that provides networking features running over (and decoupled from) general purpose networking hardware – are going to provide customers with choice and flexibility in how they build their networks like never before. And we’ll all get to see how they put those networks to use!

- Martin