You say ‘virtual,’ I say ‘digital’

In a recent post I explained how past, present and future trends in the development of storage technology makes the question “Where is my data?” pretty meaningless. With the rise of clouds, the same could be said of the question “Where is my computer?” Now the network itself is getting the same “software defined” treatment.

It used to be the case that we could point to our brightly coloured cables and know where our network was. No more. What was once a physical network switch  – into and out of which cables could be traced  – is being replaced by software. This next-generation software-defined solution is able to implement any network topology, protocol stack or switching paradigm. The “network” is now a Web dashboard for designing a network! That which was physical is now virtual.

OpenFlow is part of a new abstraction layer for networking which opens the market for innovation: network solutions which are more flexible, and more capable, than ever before. The general-purpose digital computer wins, once again, over dedicated and specialised hardware. Now, compute, storage and network switching can run on the same open platform. Without such a software-defined layer, the next-generation cloud data center could not exist, practically or economically.

Whenever a product is “digitised” as ethereal code, the opportunity to disaggregate it from surrounding integrated components increases significantly.


Cumulus Networks is a good example. The company has developed a Linux-based operating system for network hardware. Cumulus make it possible to use commodity x86 hardware and bare-metal solutions from companies such as Accton, Edge-Core, Penguin and Quanta. The result: roll-your-own network switches. The network is no longer a device, but a set of Linux resources in a software table.

In my article on storage trends, the focus of attention shifted from physical data to the data hypervisor. A similar idea is at play in the software-defined network (SDN). As Cumulus explains, “The front panel ports of the switching fabric appear to the Linux kernel as if they are standard [hardware] NICs. We accelerate the data path using the switching silicon while preserving the control and management abstractions of standard Linux.”

For Cumulus (and other SDN startups) the use of Linux provides both openness and hardware independence. It also means that the tools which sysadmins and application developers already use can now be re-purposed to define and control the network.

Gartner calls this trend “brite boxing.” I think they are simply saying that a solution can be built from unbranded goods + open software, and then re-branded and wrapped in commercial support and integration services. This is common, of course, in many business sectors and is called white-labelling. HP have announced a solution like this that combines Accton hardware and Cumulus software. Such solutions, as well as building on standards such as OpenFlow, will also embrace ONIE, an open source install environment for bare-metal network switches. Branded, dedicated and integrated switching hardware is giving way to white-labelled solutions built around software.

Guess what? ONIE was donated by Cumulus to bolster its position and ecosystem influence.

Warning, controversial view ahead:

I once wrote an article in which I argued that “open source” does not equal “innovation.” In the piece I told stories which demonstrated that real innovation nearly always occurs inside larger private companies or smaller venture funded startups. Only once a concept is proven, technically and commercially, do the open source communities move in to replicate the success. Linux followed Unix. OpenOffice followed Word. Gimp followed Photoshop. And so on. There are 1000s of similar examples. After all, who is going to work for free outside of industry in order to create something valuable?

keep-calm-and-use-open-source]Open source is most often, it seems to me, about creating a copy of what others have previously invented. It’s a somewhat controversial view I confess, and I will write about it again one day. Many commercial enterprises deliberately give away their software IP in the hope of controlling entire industry ecosystems. There is little true “free software” altruism other than among hobbyists. The real action in open source is very often copy first, then shift the emphasis of new work to refinements, extensions and evolutions. But I digress…

Gartner forecasts that by 2018, non-traditional (i.e. not closed, not proprietary) network switching will account for more than 10% of global data center activity. Mainstream vendors will then enter the space in force. This is why start ups in the space like Cumulus and others feel they must drive industry momentum in their direction now, by donating open source components and/or by creating open standards committees. It’s the way of the world!

Web scale operators such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have been at it for years, albeit behind closed doors. Only recently are things opening up.  They have successfully used white labelling to “manufacture” devices for their immense computing infrastructures at costs far lower than CIO have enjoyed from the usual suspects (IBM, HP, Dell, Oracle and the rest). We can therefore expect Web scale operations to enter the fray and bring branded products to market if their existing business models show strain in the future, and especially if they want to move closer to “the enterprise” market.

These trends point to possibilities for major IT industry realignment.

All this got me thinking. When people use terms such as “virtual,” “software-defined” and “digital,” are they talking about the same concept or are there important differences?

digitalWe used to buy calculators; now we buy calculator apps. Taxi firms used to have dispatch offices; now there is Uber. Amazon has changed the face of retail. Etc. The story of the software-defined network switch is just one more example.

At Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB), Mary Meeker provides an annual analysis of Internet Trends. In her 2012 report she pointed to the “re-imagination of nearly everything.” Here are some of her (and my) favourites of “digital” re-invention:

  • The replacement of fixed telephone boxes with the mobile smartphone
  • The replacement of family photo galleries with Facebook timelines and blogs
  • The impact of real-time citizen reporting via Twitter et al, on the traditional “broadcast” news
  • The replacement of physical notebooks with software tools, e.g. Evernote
  • The ability to “paint” on an iPad, the artist’s new canvas
  • Film cameras, replaced by digital cameras, replaced by photography apps such as Instagram
  • Scrapbooks replaced by Pinterest, creating the shareable “social” scrapbook
  • Music from LPs to CDs to MP3 to streaming, e.g. iPod, Spotify
  • Sound recorders and tape recorders replaced by digital recorders, then iPad+Logic and now Soundcloud
  • Blockbuster to Netflix
  • Books to Kindles
  • Passive TV watching to active social entertainment sources, e.g. YouTube, Apple TV and Google ChromeCast
  • Physical SatNavs to navigation software, and onto Google Directions services and Waze
  • Sports magazines read by all, to social sports commentary and opinions: The Bleacher Report
  • Home Improvement magazines to designer/consumer DIY / Maker communities
  • Yellow Pages to Yelp!
  • Cut out coupons to Groupon and Wowcher deals
  • Food outlets to Kogi Food Trucks, Chownow and HungryHouse
  • Plastic credit and debit cards to a single digital card holder, e.g.  OnlyCoin
  • Window shopping to Virtual and Augmented Reality
  • Physical markets to e-markets such as eBay and Etsy
  • (Mass) manufacturing to Shapeways and iMaterialise (3D Printing bureaus for designers & consumers)
  • Expert venture capital to crowdsourced investment, e.g KickStarter, Indiegogo
  • Banks to Lending Club
  • Meetings to, Yammer and Jive
  • Job fairs and campus recruitment to LinkedIn
  • Signatures to digital signatures, i.e. DocuSign, EchoSign
  • School and college to online learning via Coursera, Quora, SkilledUp, CodeAcademy and others
  • Cash to ecash, Bitcoin (Blockchain technology)

Looking down this list, I think it would be fair to say that the IT industry has done its fair share of disrupting, “digitising,” “virtualizing” and “software-defining” pretty much every corner of industry and commerce. So I think it’s only fair that the IT industry itself is ripe for a dose of its own medicine. What started with clouds replacing hardware purchase is just the start. Many previously integrated and proprietary computing products (compute, data and storage) have also been sliced and diced by the onslaught of “software defined” everything.

What goes around, comes around. And as I hope to explain in future articles, we ain’t seen anything yet!

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