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EMC-Dell merger good for open SDN?

The EMC-Dell merger has plenty of people wondering what will become of VMware NSX. But could the deal, counterintuitively, actually be good for open SDN?

VMware NSX is not the be-all, end-all of SDN. It's one implementation from one vendor, and there are others. It is, however, the most deeply integrated with the most widely deployed enterprise virtualization technologies: VMware ESX hypervisors and vSphere management tools. It has also been, until recently, a hardware vendor-agnostic partner to everyone from Cisco to Hewlett Packard Enterprise to IBM. That ubiquity may change with Dell's acquisition of EMC, with a potential upside not just for Cisco's ACI, but open software-defined networking technologies as well.

Convergence and marriage

We've all experienced the tragic "loss" of a good friend -- once available to hang out on short notice and down for almost anything -- after they got hitched. You might have even been in the wedding, a smiling attendee excited for your buddy and truly wishing the best for them. Fast forward six months: You and your friend are determined to finally make some time, but it just never seems to happen. With VMware's nuptials to Dell, HPE and other vendors must be feeling the same way -- trying to smile and be happy for them, but knowing things will never be the same.

In 2014, we were talking about the merits of best-of-breed, but now production SDN is a component of larger converged solutions for all but a few enterprises with unusually strong DevOps and resolve. With both cloud and hyper-convergence, SDN disappears from admin's consoles, along with the fabric it manages: the primary domains of open SDN. For enterprise data centers standardized on VMware, SDN disappears, mostly, into the vCenter console, where it's presented like any other named network in a vSwitch. But what if you're HPE, IBM or anyone else leveraging VMware? How can you ensure your now undisputed converged-stack, direct-competitor Dell will provide the support and access you're accustomed to?

Making new SDN friends

For vendors, especially HPE, it's now necessary to explore other SDN options, if only to ensure a backup in the event they're shut out or Dell begins to enjoy a large component cost advantage on data center quotes. The good news for them is that there are plenty of alternative projects available. For example, now would be a great time to uncircle the wagons and take OpenDaylight out of committee, or put name brand documentation and reference implementations behind Open Compute, to counter some notable recent enterprise failures.

The great unknown with the acquisition of VMware is actually more of an open virtualization story. It's not so much about competing SDN standards, but competing platform standards. If HPE and others are shut out of VMware, their response may be to encourage enterprises to leapfrog traditional hypervisor infrastructure entirely. Dell will most likely launch its own VMware-based cloud platform -- based on Virtustream rather than vCloud Air -- to make it easy for existing ESX admins to transition off-site. And if that's the future, HPE and others will need to develop their own migration strategies. And those strategies won't be based on ESX or any other VMware products.

We'll certainly see accelerated mergers and acquisitions of startup hyper-convergence vendors, with Cisco and HPE adding technologies through acquisition. Those new stacks will need plenty of SDN glue, and open SDN standards will be a great way to bolt the bits together. It may also be a boon for IT admins, with a fast track to fully integrated monitoring and management, and more disciplined approaches to troubleshooting, planning and service assurance.

Perhaps this acquisition is a minor mutation in the evolution of software-defined infrastructure. Or perhaps it's the beginning of the final off-site transition, and we'll look back at on-premises virtualization as the training wheels that took us from on-metal servers and applications to entirely virtual stacks in the cloud. Remember five years ago when we questioned Microsoft's decision to make Hyper-V just good enough while leapfrogging to Azure? Hindsight, it's a heck-of-a thing.

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