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Top ten SDN news stories of 2013: Cisco ACI, VMware NSX and more

Rivka Gewirtz Little

Two common themes dominated the top ten SDN news stories of 2013: the rise of open networking and white box switches, and a wave of traditional network hardware vendors unveiling software-driven networking products and/or roadmaps.

While Cisco ACI and VMware NSX got the most media attention of any SDN release to date, a number of competitors took moves that caught our eye. We ranked the top ten SDN news stories by traffic numbers. If lots of you read about it, we placed it. Here are the first five.

Editor's note: In the Final five top SDN news stories, read about Juniper open sourcing its SDN, Intel's role in SDN, OpenDaylight and the emergence of NFV.

Sexy, sexy Cisco SDN … at last

There's a joke in online journalism -- throw the word "sex" into a headline and watch the traffic numbers spike. But in 2013, "Insieme" or "Cisco SDN" did the job.

Headlines like, "Insieme comes out of stealth mode … sort of" drew throngs of Cisco users who were desperate for information. By the time Cisco announced its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in November, most of its competitors had already outlined SDN roadmaps, and even released products.

Good thing for Cisco the innovation behind ACI was lauded by analysts almost unanimously. The new Nexus 9000 switch line and an ACI controller form an application-aware fabric that gives engineers control of every port on the network.

Critics slammed Cisco for taking too long to come to market and for developing a hardware-centric SDN strategy that essentially locks customers into a Cisco ecosystem. On the flip side, users were wowed by a network architecture with such flexibility and programmability that they could transition to incrementally.

VMware NSX: Will the virtualization giant take over networking? 

Who doesn't enjoy the drama of a love affair gone sour? That's how the media portrayed the VMware-Cisco relationship this year after VMware launched its network virtualization platform NSX.

NSX extended VMware's existing networking functions with technology gained through its Nicira acquisition. NSX brings full network functionality into the stack, including virtual routing, load balancing, firewalling and VPN. It also allows for flexible network provisioning and brings the network into the overall data center orchestration picture.

In contrast to Cisco, NSX is an all-software approach that extends tunnels across the physical network, using virtual switches as tunnel endpoints, which means NSX runs on top of any existing infrastructure.

Critics said a software-only approach doesn't provide enough physical integration and could cause potential bottlenecks on the physical network. Since the launch, however, a number of companies have released NSX supporting network hardware switches, as well as firewalls and monitoring devices that allow for tighter integration.

Cisco and VMware are long-time partners, with Cisco providing the Nexus 1000v for switching inside the VMware stack. But with NSX, there is less need for a third-party switch, so it's likely now that Cisco and VMware will become "frenemies," forcing IT shops to choose between hardware and software-centric approaches -- even though both could fall short of being the right answer.

Facebook and Open Compute open source switches: Say buh-bye to black box

For Cisco, there's a threat that could be more dangerous than VMware -- the white box switch. The earliest buzz around SDN was its potential to enable less-expensive, commodity switches that could run any operating system and be managed by any controller.

This year, Facebook and its Open Compute Project (OCP) brought us a few steps closer to that reality. Open Compute has already provided design specs for open source servers, storage and other data center peripherals. This year, the organization kicked off an initiative to develop white box, open source top-of-rack switches that would allow users to run an operating system of their choice.

By November, the OCP had three switch designs from Intel, Broadcom and Mellanox, as well as boot loader software from Cumulus.

Only operators of huge data centers like Facebook will use white box switches initially, but analysts believe mainstream enterprises will embrace them eventually, with major SDN implications going forward. 

The OCP will not stop with ToR switches. Next up? Core switches.

Cumulus brings the Linux-based network OS

Cumulus Networks unveiled a Linux-based network operating system that could be loaded onto any bare-metal switch hardware, including the Open Compute switch.

The software startup wants to replicate for the networking industry what Linux did for the server industry when it helped break up the stranglehold that vertically integrated computing companies like Sun Microsystems had before x86-based servers became mainstream.

With the Cumulus OS, engineers will be able to deploy and configure switches just as they do servers -- they can plug the bare metal into the network, load the software and be ready to go. Cumulus also rolled out an updated version of its OS specifically designed to run on switches built with Broadcom's Trident II silicon.

HP, NEC, Alcatel-Lucent: Hardware makes big software moves

Cisco and VMware may have dominated the SDN spotlight in the second half of 2013, but this year many traditional network vendors launched or expanded their SDN portfolios.

HP Networking was an early SDN innovator, launching OpenFlow switches and a controller in 2012. But this year, HP was the first to release a full suite of OpenFlow 1.3 data center switches. HP also announced a software development kit for the northbound APIs on its SDN controller, and launched the HP SDN App Store, which would allow customers to easily browse and download network apps. Not to be left out of the VMware network virtualization momentum, HP also said it would integrate its SDN controller and network management app with NSX.

NEC also pushed its SDN portfolio to OpenFlow 1.3, releasing the market's first OpenFlow 1.3 controller, increasing the scalability of its SDN technology, and removing many of the challenges and bugs that engineers had found in OpenFlow 1.0.

The surprise attack in SDN this year came from Alcatel-Lucent, which pushed its way into SDN by launching Nuage Networks, which has earned praise for providing network virtualization with automated provisioning that integrates into an orchestration system and enables inter-domain networking.

Nuage uses OpenFlow controllers to direct virtual switches and routers on software overlay networks with open application programming interfaces. This fall, Nuage announced a top-of-rack services gateway for connecting bare-metal servers to its network virtualization overlay. The new Virtual Services Gateway 7850 is engineered to integrate with the company's Virtual Services Platform, and is based on merchant network silicon.

In the Final five top SDN news stories of 2013, Juniper takes Contrail open source, OpenDaylight fights for a common controller, and OpenFlow lives on.


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