The Software Revolution’s Next Stop: The Enterprise Network

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We are living through a software revolution. The flexible and agile nature of software makes it easier to conceive, build, test and deploy new products. It is also easier to iterate through revisions, continuously incorporating market feedback and adapting to changing requirements. By its nature, hardware is less agile and adaptive which slows down the process of evolving products to meet market needs. A simple example is the annual refresh cycle of the iPhone compared with the more frequent introduction of enhancements to iOS.

Software, and hardware, have been with us since the dawn of computing and both evolved in tandem. So where is the revolution? In my view, it is in the decoupling of software and hardware.

When you couple hardware and software you enslave the flexible and agile software to the rigid hardware platform. Think of an operating system and a server. When you couple the two together, a hardware failure kills the whole instance and a software failure makes the hardware useless until a new software image is rebuilt. In both cases the ability to adapt is constrained.

This problem was addressed by Virtualization and the Hypervisor. By decoupling the hardware and the software through the hypervisor, it was possible to quickly move virtual operating system images (basically Windows or Linux instances and the applications that runs on them) across physical servers in the case of a failure. And if the server software failed, the hardware could still run other virtual server instances.

Virtualization was the driving force behind the Cloud transformation, because it allowed the elasticity and resource sharing that was a core requirement of Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) businesses like Amazon Web Services.

Because the virtualization of the Compute space created so much impact, we are now seeing virtualization being extended everywhere. At the most basic level, network and security appliance vendors are packaging their solutions into virtual appliances. The architecture and management requirements remain the same, only the form factor changes. The customer is responsible for providing the underlying hardware and licenses often control how much “capacity” the appliance can provide.

The situation is more complex when we deal with custom hardware and software. In that scenario, special rework is needed to decouple the software from the hardware. Standards like SDN and NFV are creating a framework of APIs and specifications that allows the decoupling of layers of software currently embedded in physical products.

SDN extracts the control plane and abstracts the data plane that is still delivered by networking hardware. It is now possible to deploy a “network brain” to make end-to-end routing decisions while directing SDN-compliant networking gear on packet forwarding.

NFV takes that approach further by allowing the data handling function itself to be decoupled from the hardware. In an NFV world, functions like routing, application delivery and security are delivered as a collection of software services and are linked together via an orchestration layer.

SDN and NFV are driving the software revolution in networking. The proposed open standards reduce vendor lock-in and upfront investment as compatible virtualized functions can be swapped out by enterprises and service providers based on capabilities or pricing. The increased customer flexibility is at odds with legacy equipment vendors that make their living selling tightly integrated appliances. Obviously everybody is playing along nicely, no one wants to be blamed for fighting the common good of lower prices and better service.

If we had to guess, progress on the SDN, and especially the NFV, front will be slower than expected. Enterprises will most likely find that orchestrating offerings from multiple competing vendors with little incentive to move away from their traditional business models is going to be cumbersome.

This doesn’t mean businesses, especially small and medium size ones, will not be able to achieve the benefits of agile software applied to their network security and core networking infrastructure. Cato Networks is taking advantage of the progress in software, virtualization and the Cloud to deliver a streamlined and secure enterprise network – as a service.

If you want to work on fast tracking tomorrow’s vision of a better enterprise network – join our team. If you feel your traditional networking and security vendors want to lock you in and need a “get out of jail” card – join our Beta.

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