Note: I generally shy away from mentioning specific vendors in this blog, but this is a question I get asked a lot so I decided to post the answer publicly. In the spirit of full disclosure it should also be noted that I am a former employee of Cisco. Despite that, I manage to be optimistic about their future in SDN.
Software Defined Networking (SDN) is finally becoming interesting with the announcement that VMWare and Cisco will both release products for general sale this year. Add this to the offerings from such other players as Brocade and Big Switch, and suddenly we have a game on.
SDN purists will be disappointed in these choices because the unfortunate truth is that few (if any) of them are really SDN. Each of the manufacturers offering an SDN-ish solution has a vested interest in differentiation, some more so than others, so the idea of cheap commodity switches with no built-in intelligence will be dead in the water.
I’m sure everyone will have opinions about which technology is best, but let’s face it–that won’t decide the winner (anyone remember Betamax vs VHS, or ATM vs Ethernet?). Here’s why I believe Cisco will be the eventual victor in this battle for the enterprise:
- Installed Base Inertia: Cisco owns three quarters of the Enterprise Routing market, and more than 70% of the Enterprise Switching market. That’s a lot of stuff, and few organizations will be willing to replace it all at once. If you want to be in this game, then the table stakes are you have to be able to play nice with Cisco.
- An Army of Cisco Certifieds: There are currently over two million Cisco certified professionals. No other vendor comes close to that amount other than Microsoft, and they aren’t a player in the SDN market. It stands to reason that if you’re Cisco certified, you will prefer Cisco if for no other reason than job security.
- Who Controls the Budget?: It’s only natural that software guys will prefer VMWare, but unfortunately for VMWare the software guys don’t have budget to replace major pieces of the network. The networking guys do. And as we’ve already pointed out, in the majority of cases the network guys will prefer Cisco.
- Overlay (ie, VMWare) Seems Like a Kludge: Perception is reality, and the perception I get from those who have looked into NSX is that its an overlay. One more layer to manage is not a benefit, it’s a kludge. NSX is actually an interesting technology that has a lot of good things going for it, but VMware will have to manage this perception.
- Cold, Hard Cash: Cisco has a lot of it. Over a hundred Billion, with a “B”. Senior management within Cisco knows that winning SDN could determine the very sustainability of the company, so if they have to deploy that cash in marketing efforts, loss leader deals, or even buying the competition, they will.
As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, there will be comments to this post explaining why Cisco’s technology for SDN is inferior to (insert your favorite manufacturer here). While we could argue the finer technical points all day (and I won’t), the bottom line is that it won’t be technology that decides who wins the game. It will be adoption by those who have the money to spend.