Alcatel-Lucent is scheduled to announce it’s “data center SDN” vision next Tuesday (April 2nd) and the announcement may well be one of the most important in the company’s history from the perspective of addressing a compelling need. Whether it will be important in the sense of moving the SDN ball forward, even in the specific confines of Alcatel-Lucent, is what I’m going to have to be watching for.
The lowest hurdle Alcatel-Lucent has to clear is the validation of their Nuage acquisition. The announcement is a Nuage story according to their advance material, but all that Alcatel-Lucent really has to do to make its decision look strong is to demonstrate a useful mission for SDN. That’s not all that hard to do, right?
In the data center it is. If you look at the data-center SDN stuff, it’s tended to focus on creating segmented or overlay networks. I’m not disputing for a moment that you need some mechanism to segment public cloud data centers to support a large number of users who have to be completely isolated from each other—read VLANs of some sort. That’s what Nicira has been focusing on, after all, and there are other developments (the IETF’s NVO3 for example) as well. But the network of the future isn’t made up entirely of public cloud data centers that need multi-tenant isolation, and even if it were I’d argue that the Nicira overlay approach might well suit that very specific mission. As I’ve said all along, you can’t co-opt software defined networking for software-defined connectivity, which is all this stuff does. Alcatel-Lucent has to be wary they don’t fall into that trap.
The second point is that once you cast the multi-tenancy mission aside and look at general data-center needs, you’re struck with the question of just what SDN does. Yes, it’s a great approach to building better multi-switch large-data-center LANs. The question is how many of them you are going to need, and also how SDN-linked switches would differ from fabric solutions. My view is that if you’re looking at cloud data centers in a general sense, meaning public cloud and private/enterprise, then you need to rethink the whole architecture and ask what an optimum connectivity solution would be given the evolving mission, which includes private and hybrid cloud but which is really dominated by more dynamic application-to-worker and component-to-component relationships. Remember point-of-activity empowerment?
The next point is the network operator. I remain convinced that the most fertile field for any new data center architecture is the place where the most green field data centers are going to spring up. That’s the network operator in general, and the metro in particular. In the next five years operators could deploy more new data centers than enterprises have in total. What are their requirements? At a per-data-center level we can muse about that one for ages, but there’s one reality about these new data centers that is not only unequivocal, it’s fundamental even to the “public cloud” stuff we started with here. These data centers are highly interconnected. CDN is an operator-cloud application, for example, and you can see immediately how interconnected it has to be.
That’s what I’m worried about with regard to Alcatel-Lucent’s announcement. It’s fine to make a data center announcement for SDN, but I’m not of the view that data center by itself will present a compelling story for network operators, and I’m darn sure convinced that if you can’t win with network operators and SDN in the next three years, you may as well pack it in. Enterprise value for “real” SDN strategies can’t build up that fast. A market driven by SDN centralization needs, by NFV, and by the top monetization goals of operators, is going to outrun the enterprise in the early years, and this market is doing to be looking not at data center but at metro cloud. It’s very possible to argue at this point that the interconnect of the data centers is as important for the metro cloud mission as the data center networks are, and if that’s true then you can argue that metro SDN is as important as data center SDN. And I think there’s a heck of a lot more money in metro SDN.
We are already seeing the router guys positioning themselves for the validation of IP in the metro. Cisco and Juniper have both been taking steps in a product sense and in the promotion of changes in the IETF, steps designed to validate the idea that the changes in the cloud mission, the metro mission, will demand the displacement of basic Ethernet with IP routing. Why? Because they have to, because these guys know that what I’ve been saying here all along is true. All of the money in the network of the future will be made in the metro, so most of the infrastructure that deploys will go there. If you want to sell routers, sell metro routers. That’s what the router guys are saying. So if you want to sell SDN, you’d better be selling metro SDN too.