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Q&A with Dominique Vanhamme, head of networking, Dell EMEA

Q: With the immense amount of work going into creating proprietary solutions in the sphere of Software-Defined Networking (SDN) today, where does Dell fit in?

We’ve been working in the software-defined networking space for a couple of years now and our strategy has always been centred on offering openness and choice to our customers instead of creating a proprietary solution. We’ve heard from customers and other organisations that distinct, proprietary SDN solutions from vendors are immensely unappealing, both in terms of the investment in hardware and implementation and the fear of being locked into a path which might be unsuccessful. Every business has its own structure and pushing them into a proprietary approach often bypasses specific requirements.

Therefore, we’ve focused our SDN strategy on migration through openness and choice; offering our customers multiple paths to adopting SDN through interoperable devices designed to support a variety of different networking standards. We want to give organisations the easiest solution for them and we’ve invested heavily to give them the best options and support to follow their chosen path.

Q: How does Dell’s partnership with Cumulus Network fit into this strategy?

Dominique Vanhamme
Dominique Vanhamme

Our partnership with Cumulus and the recent announcement of the partnership with Big Switch Networks are pivotal part of the strategy we’ve been working on through the last year; to fill a critical gap in the market by demonstrating the true potential of open-source in the future of the software-defined data centre. We’ve been very active in developing SDN functionality with all our networking devices, new product releases and supporting software for open networking. It’s been a year since we released our first SDN capable switch, the S4800 with open flow support and open standards functionalities, and we’ve continued to invest in these areas. For example, take a look at our most recent N-series Campus switches which can now bring OpenFlow to the campus.

Cumulus share our vision of an Open Networking Era, in which an open ecosystem of partners offer choice and optionality to a broad set of customers, so this partnership provides a new networking model based on fixed-configuration switches and open-source operating system which is in perfect alignment with our open-source commitment.

Q: What is the significance of an open source approach to SDN?

An open source approach to SDN fits an overall request from customers for an open framework in which they can develop their own functionality. We have seen a great demand for open frameworks through the growth of the OpenFlow developer community and the popularity surrounding the Open Compute Programme. SDN is making significant progress in the networking market and open source is an area of movement; breaking silos and providing customers with the option of having an open environment which gives them a freedom of programmability.

Q: What are the other paths available for businesses looking to move to SDN?

We’re seeing a lot of SDN activity being driven by virtualization companies like VMware and Microsoft; based on a hypervisor-based network virtualization model usually referred to as NVO (network virtualization overlay). In this model where we leverage the existing virtualization infrastructure, the introduction of virtual switches allows an organisation to run multiple virtual networks on a single physical network, while each virtual network retains the characteristics of running as a physical network. We work closely with both VMware and Microsoft – for example, the new Dell S6000 switch is the first VMware NSX capable switch in the market – and while adoption will be quite gradual over the coming year, the virtualization route does inspire confidence from vendors due to the previous success and experiences in virtualization within the server base.

Another approach stems from a programmable framework where individual switches retain their control plane functions but allow control of the switch’s local data plane functions through an Application Programming Interface (API). A lot of large organisations still rely on legacy networking architectures and this approach has the main advantage of making use of existing infrastructure alongside new interoperable networking technology which is phased in slowly. As part of our strategy to offer multiple paths to SDN and support these legacy-reliant customers, Dell switches offer SDN capability whilst providing interoperability with legacy programmatic interfaces including Telnet/CLI, TCL, REST, SNMP, Perl and Python scripting. The upshot of this is that these large organisations can bring in these APIs for SDN through this gradual yet painless integration.

Q: What issues do you see customers and vendors facing when choosing a path towards SDN?

SDN is very much in its infancy and trust from customers is essential to foster. It is an exciting new step for networking, but reservations are natural in an industry that prefers to invest in tried and tested technology. This process is further complicated in instances when a specific migration path threatens to lock customers into specific upgrades. Proprietary solutions carry the intrinsic risk of taking the customer down a route which will be less cost effective and locks them in by ensuring that moving to a different solution presents an even greater cost.

The responsibility therefore falls onto vendors to develop paths to SDN which offer confidence and security for their customers. We believe that the best way to do this is to give them the choice and future-proof, through our technology, to pursue any path to SDN they want depending on changing needs. It is in the industry’s interest to make the SDN transition as fruitful and painless for customers as possible and as we have seen with servers, the end product of virtualization and software-definition has been greater standardisation.

Q: What should organisations consider when developing an SDN strategy?

SDN is one step in the journey to a software-defined data centre and further to a software-defined enterprise, so it is important that you have a strategy that takes a more holistic view of your IT infrastructure. Keeping this in mind, the ideal SDN strategy should offer a simple yet evolutionary path from existing legacy networking technologies to SDN. This means that the approach should offer flexibility to choose SDN technologies and phase them in gradually, creating a hybrid environment and eliminating the expensive rip and replace upgrades. For those organisations transitioning, it is also essential that SDN can be activated one port at a time in a controlled manner to allow for monitoring.

Also, organisations should consider that hybrid strategies offer the advantage of being able to introduce different SDN solutions to best meet application and network needs, allowing your network to remain as agile as possible. Products should offer interoperability by being based on open standards with vendors having ongoing participation in SDN standards-driving groups like the ONF and Object Management Group (OMG) and close partnerships with NVO vendors like Microsoft and VMware.