April 23, 2013, 12:00 PM — Last week, I wrote about the confused approach many of the largest network vendors are taking to software-defined networking (SDN). In most cases, the issue is that the shift to SDN from their current hardware-focused business would cause them real economic pain, not an aversion to the fundamental benefits for customers of freeing networks from specialty hardware.
Another reason to be wary of SDN is that it can't scale performance as well as hardware can, says Ali Kafel, director of product marketing at networking vendor Enterasys. He suggests that you simply can't switch and route data as well on a general-purpose processor as you can on the purpose-built ASICs used in today's specialty networking gear. For the most part, he's absolutely correct: A general-purpose x86 processor will never perform as well as an ASIC designed specifically for the task, especially if you throw a layer of virtualization in between.
However, focusing on performance alone misses the point of what SDN is all about. We saw that same misdirection in the early days of server virtualization, where hardware server vendors -- fearful of reduced server sales -- said the performance of general-purpose servers running multiple VMs wouldn't be able to adequately scale their performance versus running a single (nonvirtualized) instance. Yet today, server virtualization is extremely common, and you don't hear about scalability problems.
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