Software Defined, Cisco, and DevNet

Read­ing Time: 3 min­utes

It has been said that soft­ware is eat­ing the world. In the world of net­work­ing, how­ev­er, the food has been slow to digest. Net­work engi­neers can be a stodgy bunch, and change is not only slow to come but fast to be blud­geoned angri­ly. If this year’s Cis­co Live con­fer­ence is any indi­ca­tion, how­ev­er, soft­ware, it seems, has start­ed blud­geon­ing back.

Hard­ware has remained king for decades, with the soft­ware oper­at­ing sys­tems tak­ing sec­ond posi­tion in the dance of fea­tures and func­tion­al­i­ty. Pur­chasers of net­work gear would base their deci­sions almost exclu­sive­ly on hard­ware capa­bil­i­ties while accept­ing what­ev­er soft­ware came on the box as just the way things were. Buy speeds and feeds, and you hoped that the soft­ware was up to snuff.

Net­work engi­neers considered–many still consider–that the soft­ware was dif­fi­cult to mas­ter as a badge of hon­or; if you want­ed to call your­self a net­work engi­neer it was not enough to under­stand pro­to­cols and archi­tec­tures, you had to mas­ter painful oper­at­ing sys­tems, arcane syn­tax, and often con­tra­dic­to­ry con­fig­u­ra­tions as well. Indus­tries were born to train and cer­ti­fy engi­neers on net­work oper­at­ing sys­tems, and those engi­neers would then go on with bias­es toward the gear with which they had famil­iar­i­ty. And the cycle of life rolled onward.

With the advent of the hack­neyed soft­ware defined move­ment a few years ago, this all began to slow­ly change. The focus start­ed shift­ing towards the soft­ware as the dri­ver of fea­tures and func­tion­al­i­ty, with the hard­ware increas­ing­ly seen as ful­fill­ing a sup­port­ing role in push­ing data around our insu­lar con­nect­ed worlds. The hard­ware was begin­ning to be seen as good enough so as to not require a par­tic­u­lar badge or pedi­gree. The pur­vey­ors of pedi­greed hard­ware were look­ing at an uncer­tain future.

The soft­ware defined move­ment came from a place of opti­mism, of a legit­i­mate desire to make things bet­ter and to put the world of net­work­ing back on the right tracks that were seen as long ago aban­doned. The way had been lost, and soft­ware defined was going to lead the indus­try out of the dark. Large and estab­lished com­pa­nies, how­ev­er, did not get that way by acci­dent and, though ini­tial­ly slow to react, piv­ot­ed and began to embrace and extend, some would say co-opt, the fledg­ling move­ment. Soon, every­one was lead­ing with soft­ware.

Nowhere was this piv­ot so jar­ring as with Cis­co, a stal­wart, dom­i­nant, mar­ket-lead­ing behe­moth of the net­work­ing equip­ment world. And as with oth­er indus­try shifts before (VoIP, com­put­ing hard­ware), Cis­co quick­ly (or, as quick­ly as they could giv­en their size) adapt­ed them­selves to the new world order. They began rolling out appli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming inter­faces, a kind of inside-base­ball way of mak­ing hard­ware do what you want while bypass­ing the tra­di­tion­al, com­pa­ny-writ­ten, soft­ware oper­at­ing sys­tem. They start­ed open­ing up more and more of their hard­ware, and they began con­tribut­ing to var­i­ous open-source soft­ware projects osten­si­bly designed to mar­gin­al­ize their very same hard­ware.

It is in this cli­mate that Cis­co estab­lished their devel­op­er net­work, DevNet, as a place for code-exchange among soft­ware devel­op­ers. They pub­lished more and more APIs, more doc­u­men­ta­tion, and began to dip a prover­bial toe in the waters of more for­mal­ized train­ing, incul­cat­ing engi­neers into the soft­ware defined men­tal­i­ty as seen through Cis­co’s eyes. They start­ed a spe­cial­ized DevNet con­fer­ence called DevNet Cre­ate, and they began bring­ing DevNet wher­ev­er they went. And it grew, and it grew, and it kept grow­ing.

Accord­ing to Cis­co DevNet now has over 500,000 reg­is­tered devel­op­ers, over 38,000 con­tribut­ing com­pa­nies, 72,500 learn­ing labs, and over 60,000 reg­u­lar active users. There are reserv­able sand­box­es for test­ing and devel­op­ment, almost all Cis­co hard­ware as well as Kuber­netes clus­ters, and mul­ti­ple code repos­i­to­ries with code curat­ed exchanges open to any devel­op­ers to use. This entire ecosys­tem is sep­a­rate from Cis­co’s exist­ing D‑Cloud demo envi­ron­ment, and does­n’t depend on any par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship with Cis­co or third-par­ty resellers. Those num­bers are impres­sive by any­one’s stan­dards, espe­cial­ly for some­thing which has only exist­ed for a few short years. It tru­ly is an exam­ple of build it and they will come.

This year at the annu­al Cis­co Live con­fer­ence, held in love­ly sum­mer­time Orlan­do, the DevNet por­tion of the show was the most impres­sive piece of the con­fer­ence. And not just the raw num­bers, which were impres­sive on their own, but in the acreage the DevNet zone con­sumed on the World of Solu­tions show floor as well as the excite­ment and buzz sur­round­ing the thing. The most dif­fi­cult class­es and ses­sions to get into were all with­in the DevNet sphere, and it would­n’t sur­prise me if next year’s con­fer­ence saw the DevNet ecosys­tem called out with a sep­a­rate fee struc­ture from the rest of the con­fer­ence.

Cis­co’s evo­lu­tion is just one example–perhaps the biggest–of the changes occur­ring in the net­work­ing indus­try. New busi­ness­es com­ing out of the Val­ley and oth­er places with new notions of what net­work­ing can and should be is one thing, watch­ing the indus­try giants piv­ot in that same direc­tion brings a lev­el of val­i­da­tion that we would be remiss to over­look or dis­count. Change is not just com­ing, it’s already here, and if you’re look­ing at your career think­ing it’s only a fad, you are run­ning out of time to stay ahead of, or even keep up with, the mon­u­men­tal changes still to come.