Commoditization and Virtualization
Commoditization and virtualization are two big trends impacting the landscape of IT infrastructure. Virtualization – a software abstraction layer - does not eliminate the need for hardware. Commoditization – a state where a product has limited differentiation and typically choice is made on price – has been encroaching all hardware across the infrastructure stack: x86 compute, merchant silicon networking and standard storage components. A virtualized environment can potentially be commoditized faster since the underlying hardware components are pooled rather than managed individually. Network virtualization and commodity hardware are dual threats to eroding brand loyalty and margins of the traditional network vendors.
The virtualization adoption curve
When server virtualization rolled out, its maturation period had a distinct impact on which servers customers deployed. In the early days, VMware server virtualization was used for consolidation. While a hypervisor can install on x86 bare-metal, for consolidation many existing systems (including some blade servers) didn’t have the memory configuration to realistically support virtual workloads. The typical customer deployment was to use a smaller number of larger servers to hold the VM farm. As new generations of servers were designed for virtual workloads, a broad spectrum of offerings appeared that could scale the pool of virtual resources that became agile with VMotion. White box (commodity) x86 servers are available, although most enterprises still use the name brand players. Service providers and large Web properties (including the always mentioned Google) have been shifting to ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) suppliers; these companies build configurations for OEMs such as Dell and HP. Quanta from Taiwan has been quietly growing a broad product offering including servers, storage, and network switches. The ODMs are not geared to service the general enterprise market; rather they sell to very large customers such as solution providers or those creating solutions in volume, such as Nutanix.
It is early days for SDN, and the first solutions are software-led offerings that create the network stack out of multiple components including physical and virtual switches, a software controller, and network virtualization applications. Similar to the roll-out with sever virtualization, only a limited number of physical switches can be supported with various software components today.
A new entrant to the market, Pica8, is looking to accelerate networking’s waves of virtualization and commoditization by offering an end-to-end SDN solution. Pica8 offers a hardware-independent operating system, PicOSTM, for network switches that runs on commodity switches (such as from the previously mentioned Quanta; Pica8’s CEO James Liao came from Quanta). The company’s offering is a reference architecture that includes a physical commodity switch running PicOS integrated with Open vSwitch (OVS) virtual switch and tested with an Ryu OpenFlow Controller, which is created by NTT (additional controller integrations are expected soon).
Wired magazine wrote about the commodity switch trend earlier this year; Pica8’s announcement is the first that looks to bring ODM networking to a broader market. The Pica8 system is complementary to both Big Switch Networks and Nicira.
While the underlying chipset for ODM switches is the same as used with many leading switch manufacturers, software is the leading, but not only, differentiator for network devices. The initial customers for this solution will be service providers or other large environments with high growth that are on the cutting edge of adopting SDN solutions to create scalable and agile networks.
Action Item: CIOs look to Web-scale companies as leading indicators of impending trends. The IT resources in those large shops have a different skill set and focus than the typical enterprise. CIOs should look to software-led technologies such as network virtualization that can allow IT staffs to get out of silos and manage infrastructure as an agile and scalable resource pool rather than as piece parts. While there is a flurry of activity in the network space, these changes will take years to shift the landscape.