Juniper Blazes Its Own Open-Source SDN Trail

Juniper Takes Open-Source SDN Approach with Contrail

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Juniper is open-sourcing the Contrail Systems software-defined networking (SDN) platform, immediately making Contrail’s production-level code available under an Apache 2.0 license.

The announcement, being made Monday with a press event at the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, is intended to nudge the SDN center of gravity toward Juniper’s position, where overlays and more established protocols (MPLS, BGP, and XMPP) override the need for OpenFlow.

The open-sourcing of Contrail coincides with the code’s release to production under the name Juniper Networks Contrail, also being announced Monday. It’s comprised of an SDN controller, a virtual router, and an analytics engine; the open-source versions will collectively go under the name OpenContrail.

If it works, Juniper’s open-source strategy could also commoditize the SDN controller even further. That’s the point, says Juniper Chief Marketing Officer Brad Brooks. Juniper wants to see the value of SDN deployments reside in routing/switching and in Layer 4-7 applications, not in the SDN specifics.

“The virtualized network is important, but we don’t think it’s where the business case is, long-term,” Brooks says.

The not-so-open alternative that Juniper wants to combat isn’t Cisco (which pledges openness left and right, although competitors take that with a grain of salt) but more VMware and its recently announced NSX platform for network virtualization.

Juniper’s agenda also relies on a not-so-surprising belief that Juniper’s hardware franchises won’t get commoditized by SDN. “When you put these overlays on top of the network, it’s going to drive more traffic,” Brooks says. “Performance is still going to matter, and we think that having systems that interoperate with the virtual layer is important.”

A New Tactic for Juniper

The open-source strategy is a 180-degree turn for Juniper, says analyst Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research.

“Historically, Juniper’s tried too hard to be Cisco, like when they build these proprietary, vertically integrated solutions. That’s fine when you’re Cisco. But it’s hard to drive something like QFabric [Juniper's ambitions data-center fabric when you're not the incumbent."

Juniper's move suggests multiple open and open-source SDN alternatives will be competing, including the OpenDaylight Project's platform (the first release of which is being called Hydrogen) and the Floodlight OpenFlow controller offered by Big Switch Networks. Open-source platforms will be the battleground, with the market performing the usual winnowing-down of choices, Brooks says.

"We would like to accelerate that process, and we've got a production-ready version" to do it with, Brooks says.

Juniper's goal here should be to build as big and active a community as possible, Kerravala says. There's no universally accepted market leader in SDN, and open-source options are likely to keep piling up. Kerravala argues that Juniper should be trying whatever it takes to win developers' hearts — contests, frequent-contributor awards, whatever.

"That should be their main focus: to try to drive people to the community and make OpenContrail.org [or whatever] a resource not just for Contrail, but for all of SDN,” Kerravala says.

Like other vendors, Juniper is hedging its bets, too. The company was part of the switch-vendor crowd that pledged support for NSX at the launch in August.
“They’re important because of their market share presence and the customer comfort level with VMware’s technology for the server. But there will be others, particularly service-provider customers and large enterprise customers, that are wanting to move to a more open-source model,” Brooks says.

Contrail’s Trail

As a startup, before the Juniper acquisition last year, Contrail courted service providers with the promise of SDN that could reach web scale, primarily by using BGP routing and MPLS in place of OpenFlow. That message is still in place after the Juniper acquisition, but of course, Juniper is expanding its SDN story to include enterprises as well.

Manageability is also part of the Contrail pitch, Brooks says. That includes analytics and reports. “It really becomes a big-data plan.”

What hasn’t changed is the omission of OpenFlow from Contrail’s plans, at least for the moment. Juniper and Contrail believe the protocol lacks the scale needed for large enterprises and the service-provider edge. “We don’t see a need for it right now,” Brooks says. (That’s in the SDN controller, anyway. Juniper has started adding OpenFlow to routers and QFabric and probably isn’t going to suddenly take it away.)

Juniper says Contrail has 40 customers that have been running the code in beta; their production deployments could start emerging this year but are more likely targeted for the first quarter of 2014, Brooks says.

As part of Monday’s announcement, Juniper is sharing a couple of the Contrail use cases that have come to light. One is a hybrid cloud suitable for enterprises or hosting companies. The other, relevant to mobile service providers, involves virtualizing customer-premises equipment.

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