By Dan Lohmeyer
Similar to what happened to the Internet with the dawn of Web 2.0, in the IT networking arena, software is the new black—the new driver of value and innovation. Software is evolving in several ways to help customers do new things, improve business processes, and lower costs. While vendors look to pivot and harness their software assets, market dynamics reshape how the industry views software in networking.
This “modernization” isn’t new, having started impacting application software vendors over a decade ago in the form of simple software suites, subscription-based licensing, and cloud-based delivery. Think of Salesforce.com with its cloud-delivered customer relationship management offering, and of how Microsoft is moving from on-premise licensing to a cloud- and subscription-based delivery model with Office 365. These modernizations deliver big benefits to enterprise customers through rapid business value, ongoing innovation, and operational efficiencies.
While this modernization is mainstream for business and productivity software, it is relatively new for infrastructure software, especially networking software. This includes core networking software capabilities, such as access switching, routing, traffic optimization, network management, security, network controllers, and network analytics.
Network Software Trends
Four underlying trends are driving the modernization of network software.
First, software is becoming independent of hardware. Abstracting networking software from network hardware makes it easier for customers to pick and choose what they want. Previously, customers would buy a networking device and then layer individual software features on it to provide additional services or functionality. Buying network hardware is becoming increasingly similar to buying a laptop or desktop PC. The hardware comes with only basic utilities and an operating system. To gain real functionality, customers buy software bundles that package applications in order to address the most common customer scenarios, and this package of software features is transferable to another device. This allows customers to make strategic commitments to address specific networking use cases, and provides ongoing access to new software features and capabilities as they become available.
Secondarily, software consumption moves to the cloud. Historically, most software was installed locally on a device. However, today more software is run within a service provider or cloud vendor, and accessed remotely. The same is happening for networking software which, while it sits on an on-premises device, is constantly receiving updates and data files from the cloud and is remotely managed. In this hybrid case, the software runs locally but functions through a cloud-managed model. This gives customers another deployment option that can reduce ongoing management costs. As a result, networking vendors are offering a choice of deployment models, including on-premises; software as a service over public, private, and hybrid clouds; and partner-hosted software as part of a managed service offering.
Thirdly, flexible terms and pricing options emerge. As many customers are averse to heavy up-front costs, software vendors are changing how they structure payment models to better meet those customers’ needs. A variety of models are emerging that provide customers with flexible options for purchasing software. These include perpetual licenses, subscription, volume-based, and enterprise license agreement (ELA) approaches, which are detailed below.
Perpetual licensing is the traditional model in the networking space, in which customers purchase and own software licenses until they retire a device.
Subscription options are just emerging in the networking space, customers contract for a fixed time period—typically measured in years—for the right to use the software and receive technical support.
A relatively new consumption model in the networking space is volume-based, in which customers commit to a pre-determined amount of software usage at tiered volume pricing and consume up to that amount during the term. This agreement functions like a pre-paid calling card, allowing customers to purchase once and then consume the software as necessary.
ELAs offer greater value to networking customers willing to commit to a higher level of spend for broad access across their enterprise. This can provide customers with a fixed price option and avoids the need to track individual license entitlements.
Finally, application programming interfaces (APIs) are eating the world. APIs are already making it easier for applications to communicate with each other over the network. Extending the use of APIs to network devices will make it easier for them to communicate, and to use hardware such as network controllers to apply common policies across cloud environments. The policy-based APIs provide connectivity among the network devices, and allow IT to define policies in areas such as quality of service and security. The network controllers then translate the policy objectives into the device-specific commands required to meet those objectives. The network controller provides a level of abstraction, enabling developers to write higher level applications, with the controllers performing much of the low-level interfacing across the network devices.
To get the most benefit from this trend, customers should insist that vendors provide open, easy-to-use APIs, as well as the technical support and developer community resources required to deliver their promise of ease of use and speed to market.
Customer Trade Off
There are tradeoffs that customers may encounter with modernization of network software. To take advantage of these new models, customers will need to evaluate and potentially rationalize their existing software portfolio. Many customers who have done this discovered a significant opportunity to optimize their portfolio by moving away from a myriad of point products not yet taking advantage of these trends. Customers will then need to invest time in choosing which software can deliver against their business needs.
Consuming network software in a cloud-delivery model means giving up some control. Customers may not always be able to walk down to the physical device and apply patches or customizations; instead they must rely on the vendor to keep the device operational and make enhancements. Customers will have to balance their desire for more robust, agile networks with the need for hands-on control for security, performance, or regulatory reasons.
But for most customers, it will be easy to start taking advantage of this new, modernized approach for networking software. It starts by determining which vendors offer the software suites your business needs, evaluating your comfort with moving to a cloud-based delivery model, and deciding which licensing model works best for your company.
The same changes that have revolutionized productivity and business application software are coming to your networks. To get the benefits of greater agility and lower cost, start now by asking your vendors how they’re stepping up to the plate, and specifically how this new model can work for you. SW
Dan Lohmeyer is a senior director of product management at Cisco, with responsibility for the Cisco ONE Software business. Cisco ONE Software is a new way for customers to purchase infrastructure software from Cisco. Prior to joining Cisco, Lohmeyer spent 10 years at Microsoft in a variety of leadership roles.
Sep2015, Software Magazine