When it comes to networking, time — and a billion dollars — changes everything

Eighteen months ago I attended the first Open Networking Summit at Stanford’s campus. The event was billed as a place to learn what people were doing with the OpenFlow protocol as well as a primer on software defined networking. The event aimed to attract about 200 people, but around 600 signed up (half of those were shunted to the wait list).

Last night I attended the opening cocktail reception for a radically different ONS and had the chance to reflect on how rapidly the once-staid field of networking is changing. There were about 1,500 people registered, which was the limit of the venue. The event had grown to the Santa Clara Convention Center and attendees were a fairly even mix of suits and engineers.

The biggest change was the exhibitor section. Where in 2011 the exhibitor hall was a narrow corridor at the Stanford conference center where a little more than a dozen students, companies and non profits had set up “booths” to showcase their ideas for Open Flow, there was now a few rows of booths — most of which were quite professional.

In October 2011, I attended the show for one day and moderated a panel where I recall asking Dave Ward, who was then CTO and Chief Architect of the Platform Systems Division at Juniper, what he would do if Stuart Elby, the VP of digital architecture at Verizon, a Juniper customer, got so excited about the promise of OpenFlow and SDN that it stopped buying expensive Juniper gear.

Ward danced a bit but essentially said that Juniper had the features and expertise to pull networking gear together that Verizon would pay for. The subtext (and knowing Ward, it may have been directly stated) was that he wasn’t an idiot and he was well aware that the networking industry was shifting. But his company would figure it out.

Six months later, the same conference had grown to 700 people and had Google showing off its own networking coup — it had built a software defined network using OpenFlow that connected its data centers. And Ward was still on a panel I moderated, only now he was at Cisco: preaching the same ideas but now at a company with the resources to carry it through.

Fast forward to the opening of the summit this year on Tuesday, and I’m eager to see what awaits. All I can tell is that so far the industry has moved from the excitement of translating a new technology into a commercial endeavor — one that scored a $1.26 billion transaction when VMware purchased Nicira — to one where use cases are more common and vendor fighting has started capturing a bit of the event conversation.

Indeed, mixed among the many case studies I’ve heard so far is speculation about the vendor-led Open Daylight Foundation that includes IBM, Cisco and VMware as strange bedfellows trying to build an open source controller for the software defined data center.

Just eighteen months removed from its inaugural event, software-defined networking has clearly learned to walk — if not run.