SDN (software defined networking) has rapidly taken over IT networking news stories. This week was no different as AT&T shared successful results of a test using open source network software on “white box” switches.  What does this mean? Well, it could mean that a power user in the network world doesn’t have to deploy name brand network gear like Cisco, Juniper and Arista.

Excitement about SDN is measurable. A quick look at Google Trends shows the topic popping up in late 2012 and persisting as a low rumble until this past fall, when hits began to take off. It’s one thing to search about a topic. This test by AT&T is affirmation of work Facebook has been promoting with research and testing in its own large data centers for years.

Both AT&T and Facebook have made their software available to the open source community. The AT&T software, ECOMP, was given to the Linux Foundation. Facebook launched the Open Compute Project with the goal of developing and giving away hardware designs in what is a relatively new idea — open source hardware.

What does this mean for the big hardware vendors? Well, in the case of this AT&T test, they were left on the sidelines.

Cisco does have an SDN product which is available for the high end Nexus 9000 switches. Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is reportedly generating interest and sales according to Cisco. Juniper and Arista are beginning to sell their own software-only products that can run on white box switches.

The idea of decoupling software from hardware could be a major hit to revenue for the big networking infrastructure vendors. It could also impact future revenues by cannibalizing high-end products. BusinessInsider.com put it this way, “Imagine being able to buy Apple’s iOS software, put it on a $99 phone and have it all work great.”

Out-of-Band in the SDN World

Whether a router or switch is a stand-alone piece of hardware, or a software-defined device living in a sparkling white box, there is going to be a need to manage those devices. And if they all live on one box, the potential for the whole network stack to go down is even more likely. That’s when network admins will want out-of-band access from Uplogix to the devices and the tools needed to fix the problem. Configurations will change, patches will be released… SDN will remove some costs and complexities of managing network infrastructure, but as with all advances, it will open up new challenges.