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VMblog Expert Interview: James Liao of Pica8 Talks SDN, Cisco and Open Networking

interview pica8 james liao 

Pica8 was one of the pioneers in the industry to market a modern, disaggregated open networking alternative to tightly coupled legacy Ethernet switches when it released its Linux-based network operating system (NOS), PICOS, running on a wide variety white box and brite box ODM switches.

So as we look to better understand Software-Defined Networking (SDN), where Open Networking is headed, and who and what will dominate in the enterprise network market going forward, who better to ask all of these questions than industry expert James Liao, CEO of Pica8.

VMblog:  Let's jump right into the deep end of the pool.  Is SDN dead?  What's going on here?

James Liao:  As one of the original "founding members" of the SDN movement, Pica8 has come through the full cycle of SDN, from the inception of a great vision, the challenge of a new technology, maturation of the technology, and, finally, to SDN becoming a true mainstream solution.

In the white heat of "early SDN," everyone was very excited and, candidly, got way out over their skis. Trying to replace an entire network with something completely new that customers did not understand -- just because it was possible -- turned out to be a rather questionable business exercise.  But the "new" SDN is the polar opposite of the old "rip-and-replace" early days.  It's now more surgical in nature, in part, leaning heavily on its original raison d'être as a security and policy technology.  This now makes it a solution to a problem for the first time as enterprises increasingly need what SDN today can offer: improved automation, smarter software, and better abstraction of network resources.  

SDN today also gets a big boost by riding the long-term industry trend of white box and brite box networking hardware.

VMblog:  Will Open Networking become mainstream?

Liao:  To be fair, enterprise workflows, for example, are far more complex and variable than workflows in highly homogeneous data centers, and this, for a time, delayed widespread adoption of ON outside the data center.  In the enterprise, almost every use case is different, requiring its own features and solutions.  But ON software for the enterprise now comes with powerful, easy-to-use automation frameworks and compelling alternatives to legacy switch stacks and campus chassis switches, neither of which existed a year ago.  The fact that Fortune 100 companies are now well into ON production rollouts speaks volumes about the upward trend of Open Networking in the enterprise.

VMblog:  And what are your thoughts on whether Cisco will continue to dominate the enterprise network?

Liao:  While Cisco was the singularly most important player in the networking market over the last 20 years, their rear-guard actions fighting Open Networking in the data center ultimately failed and the basic facts-on-the-ground in the enterprise are the same.  In very real terms, the open networking avalanche has already started in the enterprise and it's too late for the pebbles to vote.  The combined power of the white/brite box model and SDN will force Cisco to ultimately move to Open Networking as well and embrace 3rd-party hardware, software and solutions.  In the end, this will mean that Cisco will be well positioned as a solution provider, but will no longer dominate hardware, software or services anymore. 

VMblog:  What problem does Open Networking Solve?

Liao:  First, Open Networking is leading the push to accelerate overall white box hardware evolution. It constantly reduces end-user costs while providing ever-better performance at a pace that far exceeds the slower R&D cycles of legacy switching vendors.  It also creates a well-documented, open platform for software vendors of all kinds to optimize their solutions.

But perhaps most importantly, for the first time it allows end users to modernize and deploy their networks based on their own preferences about lead time, performance, cost, manageability, and features.  In doing so, they can also craft network services that are actually differentiated from their market competitors.

Last, but not least, Open Networking provides a strong foundation for pure software vendors like Pica8 to fully focus on creating more intelligent and more flexible software that solves ever-evolving network operation problems. So SDN becomes the needed change agent that allows network operations to migrate from a labor-intensive process to a software-driven one.

VMblog:  What does it take to migrate to Open Networks?

Liao:  It starts with full backward compatibility, not just with the network infrastructure itself, but interoperability with all the existing network access control (NAC) systems and security policies. Modern, ON solutions now have all of this baked in. Next, enterprises need to build a plan for hardware selection, service deployment, system provisioning, and life-cycle management. 

Lastly, enterprises also need to review their dependency on automation, Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), and security tools.  Just like handling a legacy networking rollout, a well-planned migration to open networking is needed before enterprises can enable the automation required for their future network management needs.

VMblog:  Tell readers, what's next for Pica8.

Liao:  To start, it's nice to know that our solutions will always ride on top of state-of-the-art networking hardware, so we don't have to spend any internal cycles on hardware issues.  This, in turn, frees us to focus on providing complete Open Networking solutions to the world's largest enterprises.  Over the last year, we have completed the solution set needed to build an entire enterprise campus and access network out of 100-percent open networking components.  Moving forward, Pica8 is determined to focus on solving problems related to automation, PoE, NAC and life-cycle management and, in doing so, continue to reduce the complexity and operational overhead of future enterprise networks.

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Published Monday, April 20, 2020 7:33 AM by David Marshall
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