SDN and NFV are the real integral gears of modern infra: Ken Cheng, Brocade

The power of networking infra is moving from hardware to SDx and we are leading that industry transition, says Ken Cheng, CTO, Brocade.

The networking landscape is undergoing a mammoth change with the advent of SMAC and new technologies like NFV and SDN. Brocade, as a company has transitioned to a great extent in the past couple of years to stay relevant to its customers’ needs. Today, the company's portfolio cuts across SAN, campus networks, ethernet fabrics, SDN and NFV, to name a few. 

ComputerWorld India spoke to Ken Cheng, chief technology officer, Brocade, on the company’s value proposition in today’s hyper connected world of networks. "We are disrupting and leading the industry towards software-based networking rather than focus on selling expensive proprietary hardware like our competition," says Ken Cheng.

Edited Excerpts:

How is the new Brocade positioned in the enterprise technology world for 2016 and beyond?

You will hear us talk more about network as a platform as opposed to network as connectivity. In the last few years, we put a lot of investments (inorganic and organic) to build a technology stack for the customers to build innovative applications and services on top of our platform.

The 2008 acquisition of Foundry and then Vyatta in 2012 / 2013 was a conscious effort to lead the world of software networking. We also made a couple of acquisitions around mobile.

The big acquisition of Ruckus is a prized asset. This company, with its great technology and double digit growth, opens a big market for us to compete for the future. Many customers and channel partners in India know the Ruckus brand well. It is a leader in Wi-Fi tech as Brocade is in SAN, making the strategic alliance extremely compelling. Ruckus is strong in the public sector market in hospitality and stadiums and Brocade has good clients in corporate and service provider segment. There is a lot of synergy as we accelerate the growth on both sides.

Also viewDan Rabinovitsj, Ruckus Wireless: We are ready for the next wave

We are a leading solution provider on 5G too. The future world will be all about edge computing, software defined everything and Wi-Fi, to name a few and we have all these assets to play there as well.

Transitioning from SAN to datacenter means you are competing with networking giants like Cisco. Why should companies work with Brocade?

We provide the enterprises and service providers an ability to build an infrastructure that is open and programmable. Whether wired or wireless access, we can provide it, whether the backbone is 100G or 400G. The competitors can catch up on these features, but what service providers and customers value the most is that they can build their own services and applications on top of our stack because of open API on every layer. They can take advantage of open API to program our infra and deliver value to their applications.

How have you transformed as CTO of Brocade over the past eight years? What changes have you seen in the networking world and Brocade?

Brocade as a company made very bold moves in the last few years to branch out from fiber channel to ethernet. It’s a dramatic increase of TAM (Total Addressable Market). That’s a pretty difficult change because we moved from the well-defined world of fiber channel and SAN to a ‘plug and play’ world.

Once again, we are leading the industry, moving from hardware-based networking to software-based networking by embracing openness. Lot of networking players fight the mega trend of virtualization and software defined everything because they still want to sell very expensive proprietary hardware. Though we have the business of selling hardware infra (from foundry acquisition) we are not afraid to disrupt ourselves. We truly believe that we want to lead the world.

With technology OEMs and their customers moving towards SDx, is the death of hardware networking appliances on the cards?

The new generation of hardware will be much simpler. There are 9,000 networking RFCs used by Cisco and Juniper that become roadblocks for new entrants. But modern customers want a device - switch or router – which is much simpler. And they want an attractive price. They want this box to generate a lot of analytical information. The real value come for the software that runs on this box or even run from outside this box.

The disaggregation of the classic router is where the hardware becomes commoditized or even becomes the white box. The software may live outside the box but use interfaces like open flow to control the functions of the white box. Because the software can run anywhere, it imparts a lot of flexibility for deploying the infra and that’s the power of software based networking.

But it sounds a difficult route for CTOs and network administrators of companies to shift from traditional hardware centric infra to software defined networking.

It’s not an easy path. We conducted an interesting analysis with hyper-scale companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, wherein one network admin or one system admin manages maybe 10,000 servers. But in the enterprise space, the company adhering to best practices has one system admin managing 100 servers. 

We can help them to dramatically improve operational efficiency by providing tools like SDN controller and DevOps. Hyper-scale companies have thousands of software engineers, but enterprises don’t have so many resources. We are in a position to help them improve by 10x in terms of operational efficiency.

What about jargons or buzzwords like NFV, SDN, IoT, Big Data? Do you see the rubber hitting the road in countries like India in terms of more companies adopting these new technologies?

We definitely see that happening. Many CIOs in the enterprise space actually mandate the transition because it is a necessity now. For example, big network operators have to move to software based infra, ot they will perish or be unable to compete with OTT guys like Google. At the same time, both operations and capex will be very expensive if they continue with capex-intensive hardware-centric networking.

Many of the CIOs have the mandate, but the company’s middle management is struggling to make the transition. That transition of the infra will not happen overnight.

From an India perspective, the infra might be lagging behind the rest of the world, but these new technologies do catch up. Also, we don’t have as much copper as the Western world in India, which means wireless has an important role to play. Companies are moving away from the waterfall model of five year planning cycles because the future network traffic is unknown in today’s world. And hence NFV and SDN are good technologies for CTOs and CIOs to have on their radar.

Have the lines between CTO and CIO become blurred over the years?

As a norm, the world of CIO and CTO are very distinct, particularly in the enterprise and service provider environment. CIOs typically focus on the productivity of the entire organization through the right purchase decisions to enhance the performance and efficiency of the company. On the other hand, the CTO--particularly of a product company--focuses on defining the long-range technology architecture and making critical tech decisions on what’s needed for next-generation products.

I talk to my CIO at Brocade all the time. The CIO speaks to me on the need to buy innovative products in sync with our long term vision. I approach him to build a particular product and use their team and help as a test case.

CIOs will continue to play the big role by making the right decision to enhance their organization’s competitiveness. The CIO needs to be better informed, maybe more up to speed and more collaborative with vendors.

In the hyper era of digital marketing by tech vendors, do CIOs and CTOs get easily influenced by big marketing campaigns or is the hook of POCs required?

I think the world of making product decisions and how the customer treats the vendor is fundamentally changing. In the past, it was a waterfall model with the customers initiating RFP, everybody responding and the winner working for a couple of years to deliver the product.

That’s not the case now. The modern customer has become much more sophisticated, but at the same time, they often do not know what they want. Our team brainstorms with them and helps solve their pain points. Sometimes, the problem is extremely new for us too as the customer is making the transition and technology is also changing fast. ,Hence we suggest a POC. Some customers, including in countries like India, often say, ‘We love your technology on paper, but let’s do a POC first.’

How much are tech vendors responsible for jargon like NFV and SDN? Do they confuse the decision makers?

There is a need to educate CIOs and CTOs on these terms and the new technologies. Help them clearly understand terms like IoT, smart city, etcetra. We guide them to understand the timing and the readiness of a particular technology so that they make plans based on reality.

M&As are happening in the corporate world across sectors like hotels, retail, pharma, etcetra. Does that open an opportunity for you and your implementation partners?

M&As mean that the world of networks will always be heterogeneous. Very few environments will have a single vendor, particularly when people are transitioning from hardware based infra to NFV to SDN.

Any M&A activity actually gives us the opportunity to differentiate ourselves, because the network vendor who can provide services and applications on heterogeneous networks to facilitate the transition will be highly valued.

What's your list of best practices for CTOs in India?

CTOs needs to promote openness for the new digital era. Have an open mind for open source and try to prioritize the processes on open interfaces. They should drive an efficient and agile development process that allows companies to deliver products quickly. We often say, ‘How you build products is more important than what product you build’.

Compete for talent at all cost because that’s how you win new markets. And finally, CTOs should look at global trends and perhaps be more prepared and develop a vision that helps the organization stay one step ahead of the competition.

What technologies will you pick as winners in 2016?

My top technology bets for 2016 and beyond would be: Machine learning, analytics, edge computing, virtualization and IoT.