How Vyatta buy helps Brocade in a software-defined world

Brocade (s brcd), the networking and switch company, is buying Vyatta, a company that pioneered the idea of open-source routing software,  in a bid to compete in a networking world where software-defined networking severs the link between networking software and the box that it sits on.

Brocade has been a proponent of Open Flow, the protocol that separates the management of packets in a network from the actual movement of the packets, and thus allows companies to build out networking hardware on commodity boxes instead of expensive switching and routing gear with proprietary operating systems. The company had laid out a strategy earlier this year to use Open Flow-compatible switches, but also planned to build an overlay that would allow a customer to use both Open Flow-enabled hardware as well as their current gear, so customers could avoid replacing their entire networks.

But Brocade is also aware that without some higher-level software and services associated with its switches (or at least contributing to its coffers), it’s going to be stuck making low-end commodity hardware. With Vyatta, which has been trying to push its OpenFlow and SDN strategy for the last two years, it now has an operating system to run on top of its switches as well as services. From a blog post written about the deal:

One of the most exciting things about this announcement is that Brocade is already the leader in Ethernet fabrics, which serve as the foundation for the cloud and simplify the physical infrastructure of the network. Brocade’s Ethernet fabric technologies combined with Vyatta’s software networking solutions offer the ideal platform to empower SDN deployments where flexibility, mobility and rapid deployment are paramount requirements.

Software is eating the networking world and Brocade is rushing up the stack trying to ensure it can deliver some higher-value services. While this looks like the rebuilding of an integrated networking stack with different providers stitching together their wares, Brocade at least has paid lip service to the fact that its gear and software will have to work with products from others in order to keep serving customers. Like VMware, when it purchased Nicira this summer for $1.26 billion, Brocade is mentioning OpenStack as well as it’s ability to work with a variety of hypervisors.

What’s unclear is how far Brocade’s software-defined networking vision will go. The promise of software-defined networks and Open Flow is that you can now build applications that can interact with the network. In earlier interviews, Vyatta’s CEO Kelly Herrel focused a lot on the value of SDN as a way to virtualize networks and reduce the physical challenge of reconnecting cables every time someone wants to move a virtual machine.

Likewise, the virtualization aspect is something Nicira’s president Steve Mullaney has talked up in our conversation last month at Structure: Europe. However, that is just the beginning and doesn’t really even need Open Flow — which is precisely the point.

The cynic in me sees that the goal here seems to be using the idea of software-defined networking and the hype around Open Flow to move the control in the network from the switches to a controller slightly higher up the stack, while making it open in the sense that providers can petition the controller makers for access or integration through an API or through partnerships.

Given Vyatta’s open-source history, I’m not sure if this deal will perpetuate that mindset or if it will create a more open controller platform that lets developers build services that can talk to the networking gear just like it lets the networking gear talk to the application. Not every company will want that, but it is the ecosystem that would provide the greatest opportunity for startups and for disruption.