SDN is a Spectator Sport

If you’re a poetry fan like I am, you may be familiar with a poem by John Milton, “On His Blindness”.  The poem ends with the phrase “They also serve who only stand and wait”, and I wonder if we could apply Milton’s theory to SDN by changing “serve” to “win”.  The prevailing SDN model seems to involve more standing and waiting than it does revolution, even for the vendors who see themselves more as the downtrodden masses than as the establishment.

When SDN got started, it quickly became identified with a kind of network-buyer “throw the bums out” vision where hordes of white-box revolutionaries were carried on the shoulders of the crowd as they trampled incumbents.  In reality, there is no indication that SDN is really revolutionizing much at this point, and if you believe the latest Wall Street analysis of buyer sentiment, we’re going to see an uptick in traditional network spending.  Why is all of this happening?

Part of our problem with SDN is shared with other “revolutions” like the cloud and NFV, and I’ve mentioned it before.  It’s the tendency for the media and analyst community to pick up the most dramatic possible outcome of anything and say that it’s not only inevitable but looming.  Tell a reporter that SDN will make a difference in three years and they’ll look for a source that says it will take only two.  Write an analyst report saying SDN is a ten billion dollar market in 2018 and buyers of research will cast about for a bid of $20 billion in 2017.

All this cynicism notwithstanding, history tells us that we can really have revolutions.  The IBM PC spawned one in the early 1980s and the Internet followed a decade later.  That means that it is possible to shake market foundations, and even to underestimate markets instead of hyping them out of all proportion.  It’s just not easy, and for any given revolution the odds are good that it’s exaggerated to the point of being a fantasy.  It’s also true that the players in the best position to force changes are the ones least likely to benefit from it.  Somebody wins with the status quo, by definition.  And that has created a new sort of SDN strategy, one of SDN as a spectator sport.

Observational SDN differs from participatory SDN in that the goal not to drive change, but to let natural market forces kill all hopes of change, and perhaps even help those forces along a bit.  Assume that buyers have a trillion or so dollars sunk in incumbent network architectures.  Assume that they have expectations of value set by the bullshit bidding war I’ve described here, and assume that these expectations will not be met in any early trials.  Every year (for carriers, every day) they are forced to buy something to sustain current operations, and so they stay the course.  Five years from now, they’ve evolved to a new network one router or switch at a time, and it looks like the old one with successor model numbers stuck on the front of the same boxes.  Who wins?  The establishment, so sitting things out is downright smart for an incumbent.

This raises the question of what could be done to promote a “revolution” effectively, to change the dynamic.  Are we going to call every change a revolution and be right for the two in fifty years that actually quality, or are we going to make the most of every change and let market Darwinism decide which ones can make the leap into “revolution” status?  If we do the former, then there will be no SDN revolution and current incumbents will win—mostly Cisco.  That’s what Cisco is banking on.  How then could we do the latter?

The barrier to SDN revolution is incrementalism.  You can’t readily value SDN by replacing one router at a time.  You have to displace a bunch of stuff to create a value in networking, and to do that you need significant benefits—new things.  Why?  Because if I have a data center that would benefit from SDN, even one where I might save 24% (the max users report as being possible) in capital costs, that savings could accrue only if I were buying everything at once, and I didn’t buy it that way.  On the average, data center switches installed today have 21 months of residual useful life.  Toss them and you write that off, and it represents over half of the original cost.  So how does trashing 57% of my current investment to save 24% make sense?  It doesn’t.

Cheapness will never fund an SDN revolution (or a cloud or NFV one for that matter) because we have technology we’re trying to displace with our revolution and the cheapest option is always the stuff you’ve already purchased.  You need a driver from above, a set of significant new benefits, that can fund a significant change-out of existing gear.  You need something to justify the write-down.

What?  Forbes recently reported on a survey by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services where buyers said that “business agility” was that high-level driver for the cloud.  Given that cloud deployment is likely the driver of SDN, agility is the benefit to watch for SDN too.  But as Forbes points out it’s pretty hard to quantify “agility” and even hard to say exactly how SDN contributes to it.  Remember, we have connective networks today—anything can talk to anything else.  What more could SDN do than that?  Anticipatory connectivity for that server you don’t have yet?  Businesses don’t run on networks, they run over them, and what generates the traffic and the business benefits are applications.

Whatever creates agility at the network level has to be supported at the application level, which makes things even more complicated.  Agile networks supporting monolithic applications don’t accomplish anything, which is probably why we’re having a hard time coming to terms with a real SDN value proposition.  In this regard, NFV would have an easier time because it combines hosting of stuff and connecting stuff under one roof.  Maybe that’s why Dan Pitt said NFV was a flash in the pan; it might be too bright a flash to compete with.  But maybe it’s also why Cisco started its own SDN mission at the top, with the APIs and the notion of application-centricity.  Forget “carpe diem” and think “carpe beneficium” (“benefit” for those who didn’t study Latin).

The trouble is that the revolutionaries are sitting in their own coffee shops, not building the barricades.  If you look at SDN strategies from Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, and Juniper you see what should be an SDN spectator and two bomb-throwing SDN radicals, but that’s not what you see.  I like Alcatel-Lucent and Juniper’s SDN technology, but I don’t think their positioning is going to make that connection with application and business dynamism, and that leaves Cisco free to build SDN one router at a time, as only an incumbent can do.

Without a strong application story, nobody can make an SDN revolution work.  If Cisco can present such a story for legacy routing, it’s going to be hard to beat the combination.  Competitors are playing into Cisco’s hands by playing in the value-proposition mud while Cisco watches from the stands.  They still can’t tap enough benefits to put Cisco at risk, and we know that because Cisco is still “spectating” and not driving a radical approach.  They don’t need to get their hands dirty; they’re winning.