In my previous blog, I discussed the need to focus on the software in addition to the core hardware functions. I noted that spending too much attention on merchant silicon vs. custom ASICs for network processors neglects the importance of software to the networking infrastructure.
What are the considerations that matter in the software? Software is harder to evaluate compared to hardware. It’s quite easy to read a spec-sheet and note that an Arista 7150, a Brocade VDX, a Cisco Nexus, or a Juniper QFX switch can handle so-many million packets per second. Some people may dig deeper to look at the ACL entry limits or system memory. But assuming that the gear can handle your network capacity, one needs to look at considerations that really matter in operational use, which are defined by the software. Here are some examples:
- Quality of the network feature stack – are core features such as BGP (border gateway protocol) based on industrial strength code? It is easy to claim that a device supports a feature (a check-off box), but it’s another matter to deliver those features with quality. Are they compatible with extensions such as MBGP (multiprotocol BGP)?
- Monitoring capability – How well can you monitor the traffic and provide the visibility and interoperability with the network tools you have? Tools from vendors such as ExtraHop, Lancope, ManageEngine, Riverbed, and Solarwinds, as well as those provided from the switch vendors, are important.
- Extensibility – Does it support open APIs or programmability you need? Does it work with the type and version of scripting language you use? Is there a vibrant community of developers to interact with, and draw IT talent from? Is your staff trained to work with Juniper’s Junos PyEZ or Cisco’s Python API?
Many of these software areas are tied to the management of the network. ESG’s recently-completed 2015 Network Spending Trends brief shows that technologies to optimize and simplify network management were one of the most important priorities for network buyers, with more than one-third (39%) of respondent organizations indicating this would be a key area of investment this year (note: this has also been a recurring trend in previous ESG surveys). Needless to say, this is an area driven primarily by software.
People don’t swap out their network gear as often as they do for servers (at least they don’t today), so understanding these software capabilities makes a difference for their IT investment. It’s certainly possible to upgrade the software on network devices, but the chosen platform affects architecture and operational issues for quite a long time.
So in summary, the game in network devices is increasingly about the software. This is not limited to software-defined networks or network virtualization of NFV, but for almost all of the functionality needed by today’s networking customers.