Software-defined networking forces Juniper’s big shift

Juniper Networks (s jnpr), the networking gear provider, has completed what a startup might call a pivot, but what is in reality a savvy move designed to meet head-on the challenges that software-defined networking poses to its business. What Juniper has managed to do with this shift is to take the biggest threat that the OpenFlow protocol posed for its business– the commodification of the router– and stave it off.
It has also embraced the network virtualization and programmability that other proponents of SDNs have put forth — which will give its customers some of the ease they crave when it comes to dealing with virtualized and scaled out servers — but it did so in a way that embraces modularity rather than any sort of customer-controlled remapping of the network. This is probably the smartest thing Juniper could do, especially given that plenty of customers don’t want to take the Google-like step of building of their own infrastructure.

Network’s big shift

The networking world is undergoing a giant shift, almost as significant a shift as the introduction of switches two decades ago. The current shift is caused by the need for flatter networking architectures as data centers scale out, less physical complexity as servers become virtualized, and a faster way to handle the challenges of more servers talking to each other between racks as opposed to sending their information out of the data center.
One of the proposed solutions for these problems is creating a layer of abstraction between the brains of the network and the gear responsible for routing packets. Once this occurs, it’s possible to put commodity gear inside the data center and smart software on x86 machines that will then orchestrate the network. Open Flow, a protocol designed at Stanford was one way to enable this abstraction at the lowest levels of the network by separating the movement of packets from the intelligence needed to control the routes those packets took. But there are other ways to get this separation and abstract the network — and those ways also mean that there will still be room for specialized networking equipment. But in most of the new software-defined networks the end goal is to give data center operators more programmability, the ability to buy cheaper gear and the ability to abstract the physical network from the applications.

Juniper’s big shift

In a call Tuesday, Bob Muglia, EVP of software solutions at Juniper, laid out how Juniper is adapting to the new networking paradigm with a change in how it prices its products, as well as a complete SDN strategy. Muglia, who helped Microsoft move its applications to Microsoft’s (s msft) Windows Azure cloud, has experience in adjusting to the dynamics of delivering software for the cloud. And that’s what Juniper will do.
Software is eating the networking world. Thus, Juniper will shift from selling expensive boxes with software baked in, to selling the gear and in a separate transaction, software for those boxes based on a licensing model familiar to enterprise software. Customers will buy a license and then pay a maintenance fee. They will also be able to buy a subscription instead. Muglia didn’t give details about how this change in pricing would change both the makeup of the company’s sales force and its margins, but the financial world will be watching both.

The product strategy supporting it all

Juniper has broken down the network into four layers: forwarding, control, services and management. At the lowest level, forwarding, it plans to work with protocols including Open Flow, but it will not include it in its hardware, nor will it rely on that. Instead, it will rely on tried-and-true protocols such as BGP, which makes sense because this helps stop the utter commoditization of the router. It also fits with Juniper’s recent acquisition of Contrail systems.
The control layer is where the brains and communications between the device on the network will occur, while the services layer will offer a way to route certain features such as firewalls, network traffic analysis and security off the network for additional processing. The management layer is where the programmability happens. The Junos Space software, out today, is the delivery mechanism for customers to begin separating their networks into these layers.
This is Juniper’s view of the network. Other than the forwarding layer, it thinks that everything else should be centralized. The plan is to bring partners in at the services level, although Muglia was not certain how that would work and what APIs might end up being shared, saying that they would have to wait and see what users demanded. At the management layer, the plan now is to allow that software to work with VMware (s vmw) and OpenStack-based cloud management stacks.
In the first quarter of this year, Juniper will announce the JunosV App Engine that will allow customers to start building boxes that can handle some of the offloading of services off the network hardware and onto commodity boxes. Some time in 2014, Juniper will complete its vision with a product that will allow for the pulling together of modular network services that customers can then “chain” together using newer versions of the App Engine software as well as Junipers MX and SRX boxes.
The company has posted a detailed blog post about its plans and the new licensing model. As the networking world changes, it seems that Juniper has done what it can to adapt without ensuring its extinction. Now all eyes will be on Cisco (s csco) to see if it takes such a drastic step as well.