Just a month into 2008 and we have already seen more big news in Ethernet switching than there has been in several previous years as a whole.
This week we had the entry of a brand-new player of clout, namely Juniper with its EX-series. Meanwhile, market leader Cisco launched not just a new box, but a brand new family, the 7000, running not on the company's standard IOS operating system, but a whole new one, called Nexus.
But beyond the emergence of a new heavyweight competitor and a new class of switch from Cisco, the big news for 2008 looks set to be a year-long discussion of how network operating systems need to evolve to accommodate the requirements of complex, highly distributed networks in the world of web services, SOA, virtualisation, and SaaS.
Juniper actually got the ball rolling at the end of last year, announcing in December that it planned to open its JunOS operating system to third-party developers in the service provider community and systems integrators to give them "greater choice and control in designing, developing, and deploying specialised applications such as event-optimised routing, customised bandwidth management, advanced security services, and extended operations toolsets".
The Partner Solution Development Platform includes a software development kit with interfaces into the JunOS routing and service functions, and the idea is for interested parties to sign up to join the program and be granted access to the SDK and APIs.
Challenged to respond later that week, Cisco said it too was moving IOS to a Unix-based kernel, then 'componentise' it, meaning it is to become as modular as the OSes used by the company's networking competitors.
3Com last month reminded the market that its efforts in this space predated both Juniper's and Cisco's, having announced its Open Services Networking initiative for third-party apps on its boxes as long ago as January 2007. It underlined its reminder by announcing the first third-party module for a 3Com switch, namely a WAN optimisation/app acceleration blade from Expand Networks.
Other smaller vendors such as Force10 and ConSentry have joined the fray. Force10 talks about a two-stage process, first involving collaboration with load balancing vendors to write scripts to sit on a policy server to orchestrate responses from its switches to changes in utilisation rates in the network, shutting off or bringing up links as required. Further down the road, the vendor will bring third-party apps actually onto its boxes and run them as unique processes.
ConSentry, meanwhile, has gone beyond its initial remit as a vendor of secure switches (devices with network access control baked into them) into what it calls intelligent switching, whereby its boxes now also have user and application control capabilities above and beyond NAC.
This is not quite opening up the OS for third-party development, in fact, but in as much as it speaks to the desire to get more functionality on board and integrated with the networking vendor's firmware, it is in the same general ballpark.
Meanwhile, at the ProCurve Networking division of HP, VP and worldwide GM John McHugh went even further back in claiming precedence (and prescience), arguing that his company has been talking about all this for the last five years with its Adaptive Edge strategy.
More particularly, he said, the launch in February 2006 of ProVision, a programmable ASIC for delivering additional functionality, saw that vision evolve further. McHugh referred to the technology as enabling 'a virtual hosting environment' on its gear. He said ProCurve has been working with a number of 'co-development partners' for the last three years and will make a number of announcements of app from these relationships during 2008.
Without divulging all their identities, he cited one well-known ProCurve partner, Canadian VoIP vendor Mitel, which "has been showing its call management solution running inside out 5300 switch at a number of trade shows and reseller forums". He added that, "it is not a shipping product yet, but it took them just a day and a half to do this, and without an SDK."
Going further, he revealed that ProCurve found a German firewall vendor called Vantronix Secure Systems which was running its technology inside one of its switches. It contacted the company to formalise a relationship and "they have been shipping the product for about nine months now without legal support".
As to when he might go public with all the co-development activity underway on the ProVision chipset, McHugh said "our capabilities and offering will be clear by the end of the year."
After a few fairly humdrum years in which the news was all around incremental functionality and the odd new feature, 2008 looks like seeing a lot more activity in Ethernet switching. Juniper and Cisco set this up with their promises of third-party apps going into their OSes, and a bevy of other players are jumping on the bandwagon. ProCurve, which is generally ranked number two in the market, albeit with single-digit global share (circa 6%, in fact), could be a serious contender here, particularly as it already has the enterprise customer base and the channel in place to make further inroads on Cisco's huge share, something that is more challenging for someone like Juniper.