Networking is a double edged sword. The conduit to cloud, networking complexity has also lingered as a check on progress towards greater data centre agility. At the Discover 2014 event in Las Vegas last week, HP’s GM of the enterprise group Bill Veghte described networking as "the most archaic of the silos," referring to continued reliance in traditional networking on "CLI — or human — middleware" for configuration and management. Over the past several years, HP has worked hard to change this through automation aimed at better integration of networking components into converged infrastructure systems. For HP, the key means to transform networking has been software-defined networking (SDN) based on the OpenFlow protocol, an open approach to the software control of network hardware that is designed to offer customers choice in data centre components, while providing HP with an entrÃ©e to networking markets that continue to be dominated by rival Cisco.
This strategy appears to be gaining some traction. With 4.4% y-o-y growth in Ethernet switching revenues, HP ranks second in the market after Cisco (y-o-y growth of 2.1%), and holds more share than the next five competitors combined. In a recent Infonetics review of Ethernet switching vendor leadership, researchers concluded from the study of buyer perceptions that "HP is best positioned to take on Cisco" and found that HP’s strong suits included service and support, technology innovation and its value proposition. HP’s networking innovation has been largely focused on SDN, which the company has taken from the lab and into commercial production: to date, HP has introduced approximately 60 OpenFlow-enabled switches and routers, an SDN controller, SDKs to encourage a developer ecosystem as well as Apps in Store for customers looking to simplify network provisioning and management. And while it is unlikely that HP is experiencing significant growth in networking that can be attributed directly to SDN deployments yet, as global marketing leader for HP networking, Kash Shaikh explained, customers are making decisions, even on hardware components, based on SDN readiness. If customers are still educating themselves on the path to SDN, it appears that many are looking to acquire SDN-enabled gear as a future proofing, investment protection tactic. As replacement on networking equipment typically follows a five-year cycle, it’s also likely that SDN deployments (and revenue) will continue to gain momentum. According to Shaikh, 10,000 downloads of the HP SDN controller and thousands of SDN port shipments to date are an indication of production deployments that he expects will continue to increase through 2015.
To provide impetus for this growth, HP has committed to ongoing innovation in SDN, announcing more building blocks at Discover 2014. As Antonio Neri, HP SVP and GM of servers and networking, noted at the event, the goal has been to enable networks to service cloud, Big Data and mobility applications: "When we think about cloud, we need to reconstruct the edge, and when we think about Big Data, networks have to respond quickly. When you think about mobility, you have to build bridges between WiFi and traditional networks…. [and] the network has to operate at the speed of the business or there won’t be any cloud."
So what’s new on the HP networking front? First and foremost is the HP Virtual Cloud Networking (VCN) application, a networking virtualization solution based on open source that automates and simplifies networking services such as configuration and provisioning to power cloud scale and on-demand application deployment with virtual networks. To enhance network performance, HP also introduced the FlexFabric data centre 7900 switch series, which integrates the virtual SDN overlay with physical resources. According to HP, the new switches feature a compact modular form factor that can reduce cost and operational complexity up to 75 percent. And to support customers looking to deploy the ‘new style of IT’ in networking, the company has launched HP Trusted Network Transformation services that cover strategy, assessment, design and deployment, management tools, customized support, training and life cycle program management of all network components. With these technologies, Neri claimed it’s possible to push TCO reduction, lowering costs by 35%, and to drive network agility "from months to minutes." And when combined with the HP Helion platform, he added, these new networking products prepare customer environments for effective cloud deployment.
HP attributes interest and uptake of its SDN portfolio to the fact that HP has built on open standards, which is enabling the roll out of associated apps that are designed to solve practical data centre issues. According to Shaikh, "One of the challenges data centre operators face is vendor lock in. Because of proprietary standards, they become locked in to a particular vendor and then have to pay a premium [for upgrades]. They lose on speed and business competitiveness as a result of being held captive by a particular vendor’s architecture. SDN, on the other hand, delivers openness if it’s standards based, and speed in terms of agility because it removes manual configuration." In contrast to proprietary systems, HP SDN supports heterogeneous networks, he argued: "we are not locked in. Customers can change their switch to anything that supports OpenFlow, such as Brocade or Juniper products. They don’t have to have a dedicated switch [for SDN]… and so do not have to pay the ‘hardware tax’ that you have to pay in other proprietary vendor systems, where you will need to add more hardware to a hardware-centric environment that is already complex." To illustrate this point, Shaikh contrasted HP SDN benefits with analysis in a recent and less than flattering Gartner assessment of the value proposition in Cisco’s ACI SDN.
The new VCN application is a good example of HP’s determination to win share and influence customers through the development of open ecosystems that can deliver additional benefit. Designed to interoperate with the VMware platform, VCN provides the means for partnership with the virtualization giant in order to create a federated solution for VMware environments. The VCN is very similar to NSX, VMware’s network virtualization product; however by federating the VCN and the NSX controllers, the partners can offer customers visibility into both the physical and virtual layers through a single point of control. But the VCN also extends to other hypervisor environments, to provide networking virtualization, for example, for Hyper-V or KVM, widening the HP SDN circle beyond its own and VMware spheres of infrastructure influence.
HP has resolved that it cannot solve everything, and is banking on extension of it SDN partner ecosystem to develop the kinds of applications that can improve and simplify network deployment even further. So far, HP has SDN Distributed SLB (load balancer), Microsoft Lync Optimizer and a Protector apps in the marketplace — and will make the VCN app available in August. In addition, a subset of partners in the SDN Ecosystem Alliance, including BlueCat, f5, Riverbed, realstatus and radware, have built apps that HP is also marketing in its SDN App Store.
"We are partnering to provide customer choice," Shaikh declared. "If all the vendors adhere to open standards, it’s the best thing for the customer. They need to have choice. One might ask about our strategy — at 11 percent we have pretty significant market share, so why would we open up to other players? But if we do the right thing by customers, they will pick the right vendor, and self-select the technology that they think is the right for them." HP has strategized that "right" will HP and an open ecosystem — but facing dominance by Cisco which currently has 60-70 percent market share, does the early proponent of OpenFlow commercialization itself have any choice?