Brocade’s SDN vision sheds some light on OpenFlow’s evolution

Brocade (s brcd) has joined the parade of vendors, large and small, trumpeting their software-defined networking strategies. The company, which makes networking chips and gear, laid out a strategy that offers a Brocade-specific fabric (watch here for the technical details!) as well as an ability to operate an OpenFlow network simultaneously with an existing network.
Brocade has been a proponent of the OpenFlow protocol for the last two years, and on Tuesday it laid out its product plans, including gear that will make it possible to run both a traditional network and an OpenFlow network on the same switches. This is a pretty significant feature, since a large complaint among users is that OpenFlow traffic and traditional Layer 2/3 traffic can’t run on the same network.
Keith Stewart, director of product management with Brocade, says many of the service provider customers are eager to use software-defined networks to deliver new services, but will still expect and need to run their traditional networks in parallel. Without a way to bridge both options, OpenFlow wasn’t appealing. So while Google (s goog) made waves by turning the network between its data centers to an all-OpenFlow network, customers like AT&T (s t) have too many customers and such complex networks that such a shift doesn’t make sense.
I also got Brocade’s take on the evolution of the networking virtualization world. Many companies are launching products and companies in this space, but it’s still unclear how things will shape up. Stewart says he believes that customers will end up using different controllers for different applications, which means products from Big Switch could coexist with Nicira’s stuff or even fabrics from large vendors.
Brocade also introduced its VCS Fabric technology that will help shuttle virtual machines around a data center without manual configuration. This is a hot topic among the large vendors that see the need for some kind of configuration management tools for virtualized networks to help automate some of the provisioning. The server world has a variety of tools, including Puppet and Chef, but among vendors that include IBM (s ibm), Cumulus Networks and now Brocade, the need for some kind of provisioning overlay is worth investing in. It’s still unclear what end users will want, though, since most folks deploying SDNs are fairly sophisticated and are comfortable solving problems with legions of smart engineers rather than software.
As for widespread adoption, it’s still a ways off and when it does come, the likelihood is that vendors will have to play nicely with others. “[T]he vertically integrated approach isn’t going to work here,” Stewart said.
So look for companies to create an ever-shifting web of partnerships and agreements between each other all carefully labeled as open thanks to their use of OpenFlow. Underneath, however, we’ll see that certain partnerships will offer more user-friendly pairings for a higher cost, while bare bones equipment and offerings will be cheap and dumb and perfect for giant webscale and cloud companies that have time and engineers. Does that mean networking will need its own version of OpenStack? We’ll discuss this and other SDN-related topics with Nicira, VMware and others at our Structure 2012 conference in June.