SDN: Open, Fragmented Chaos

I wanted to follow up on a prior blog post after attending a recent SDN conference where I also moderated an investment panel.  In summary, I walked away from this conference and reading other recent SDN news thinking that 2013 will be a year of increased entropy for the SDN market.  VCs will continue to fund new start-ups, incumbent large IT companies will announce SDN plans/roadmaps, users will demand open standards to avoid vendor lock-in and the press release and marketing onslaught will be intense.  From an investment perspective, I still think it is too early to make any definitive conclusions given all this disorder and timing of SDN revenues being significant still being a couple of years away, but I believe that existing merchant silicon suppliers like Broadcom can only benefit from the deployment SDN with little threats from start-ups, while Layer 4-7 based appliance companies like F5 are most at risk given the ultimate SDN architecture and significant VC start-up funding in this area. 

Users Want Open Standards: Not surprising, both enterprise and service provider end users are weary of being locked-in to single vendor or vendor coalitions. After all, one of the main goals of SDN is to unlock monolithic data center hardware and appliances to allow for more innovative and faster feature development.  What I think will be challenging here is any standards efforts typically involves multiple constituents with different agendas.  This tends to slow down the standards process and results in compromises in the ultimate standards that limit functionality and flexibility.  A very relevant example in the recent past was the standardization process for IP Multi-media Subsystem (IMS) in the telecommunications industry.   When I asked a senior technical executive from the telecom industry at the SDN conference on whether there were any lessons learned or best practices from the IMS standardization process that could be applied to SDN, the answer was not encouraging. Specifically, the executive mentioned how the standards process around IMS was tedious, took longer than expected, and resulted in compromises that ultimately left the standard somewhat inflexible for some future unforeseen requirements (e.g. certain aspects of machine to machine communications over 3G/4G wireless networks).   Although not yet formally announced, the new open-source Daylight controller consortium from traditional networking and IT vendors Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC will be interesting to watch.  Is this is a true open-source initiative, or a coalition effort from those that benefit from the current processes in data center design, implementation and hardware sales that just want to keep the status quo as we transition to SDN over the next few years.

Fragmentation and Chaos: To me, the SDN market right now is both fragmented in terms of company functionality and chaotic in terms of vendor positioning and marketing.  I say fragmented as most start-ups (and public companies for that matter) I see are offering one or a few pieces of the overall SDN solution, but not one is all that encompassing. That make sense given how broad SDN is both in terms of architecture and functionality.  It is likely we will see continued funding of start-ups to fill in functions within the SDN functional grid as well as acquisitions as existing public companies and mature SDN start-ups seek to fill out their SDN offerings.  The F5 acquisition of LineRate was a recent example of this as an existing appliance based Application Delivery Controller company F5, acquired an SDN start-up focused on Application Delivery Control.  Thus, the fragmentation of the SDN market is likely to remain and supportive of continued VC funding, which will continue to fuel consolidation as mature start-ups, traditional networking, hardware and software companies seek to fill in the gaps of their SDN solution.  I continue to believe such a cycle and the ultimate timing of significant SDN revenues being 3 years away will make it highly unlikely any true SDN start-up goes public in the next two years.

I also characterize the SDN market as chaotic right now given the marketing onslaught of large technology companies in 2013.  In the past several days alone, we have seen initial indications of the open-source Daylight controller (e.g. expected to be supported by Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC), SDN announcements from traditional vendors Ericsson and Huawei and ONUG releasing its top five recommendations to enable Open Networking.   While 2012 was the year start-ups garnered virtually all the attention in the SDN market, 2013 seems to be the year that technology incumbents are scrambling for mind share through coalitions, product launches/roadmaps and acquisitions.  On top of these developments, venture capitalists on the panel I moderated at the SDN conference indicated they expect further investments in 2013 for new SDN start-ups.   Seems like the SDN crescendo will only intensify throughout the year.

Investment Thoughts:  My investment thesis around SDN continues to evolve as I continue to digest new information.  I provide some takeaways from the investment panel I moderated at the SDN conference below, which are of-course subject to change in the future as new information becomes available.   

  1. Little Competition for Merchant Silicon Companies: Everyone agrees that there will be strong demand for merchant silicon for new hardware platforms as the SDN market develops.  On the other hand, it appears VCs do not want to fund merchant silicon start-ups given the high R&D and other costs associated with semiconductor companies vs. software companies.  Thus, my conclusion is that Broadcom and maybe Marvel (if they can get some traction with their merchant silicon products) could be companies to benefit from the growth of SDN, although it will take a few years for SDN to truly drive merchant silicon sales. Intel would be another beneficiary, but merchant silicon would likely be too small of a business for such a large semiconductor company.
  2. Layer 4-7 Companies More At Risk Than Cisco: While all incumbent data center equipment suppliers are potentially at risk from the future of SDN, I think special purpose appliance based Layer 4-7 companies like F5 are more vulnerable than Cisco.   I say this because the ultimate SDN architecture will still require physical switching fabrics in the data center. Perhaps these fabrics will be merchant silicon based and Cisco will suffer share loss or margin pressure, but perhaps not.  On the other hand, the stand alone Layer 4-7 appliance is not present in the future SDN based data center, but rather replaced by a pure software solution in the application layer.  While its possible companies like F5 can pivot and transition their business models to be the suppliers of such software, the VC community seems intent on funding talented start-ups to attack this technology discontinuity while at the same time they are not funding merchant silicon companies at all and seem to be rarely funding data center fabric companies. 

Disclosure: I currently own shares of Cisco, HP, Marvel and Ericsson mentioned in this report. I may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting services for NT Advisors LLC.

Oracle and Cisco On A Collision Course

Today Oracle announced it was acquiring session border controller equipment supplier Acme Packet for about $1.7 billion.   Acme Packet has roughly 50% market share of the $500 million session border controller market.  What I find interesting in this strategic move by Oracle is that they are entering a market (albeit a relatively small market) that is served by traditional communications equipment suppliers like Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson.  One has to ask, why is Oracle entering such a market?  My view on this is Oracle sees that the combination of high speed public roaming wireless technologies like LTE, the maturation of IP Multi-Media System (IMS) for IP service manageability (which SBC is a part of), more sophisticated mobile devices (e.g. tablets and smartphones) and cloud hosting as allowing for the first time communications service providers (e.g. Verizon and AT&T) to truly offer a full suite of managed fixed and mobile services to the enterprise customers.    Oracle wants to be a solution provider to service providers and large enterprises in the areas of business/services operations, IMS core manageability and application creation elements.  Oracle already does a significant amount of business with service providers in business/services operations and is likely looking to expand its offering in IMS core and application creation.  Acme fits into the IMS core.  I would not be surprised to see Oracle acquire Layer 4-7 application companies within the Software Defined Networking (SDN) architecture as well to enhance their offerings in application creation.  These companies, however, may not necessarily be public companies, but rather private start-ups developing pure software applications rather than special purpose network appliances.

What is also clear to me in this move by Oracle is how Cisco and Oracle will become more competitive over time. This is not surprising, as both companies are somewhat mature and seeking new growth vehicles.  What probably also accelerates this increasing competition between the two companies is Cisco’s recent strategy shift to being more of a software company.  Acme was a main competitor to Cisco, albeit in a small market of only about $500 million.  Even so, this deal likely portends of more competitive clashes between the two companies in the future.  So while the street has been focused on the increasing competitive dynamics between EMC and Cisco after VMware acquired Nicira back in July of 2012, now we can add another competitive battle with Cisco in the form of Oracle.

Large cap technology companies like IBM, Oracle, Cisco, EMC and HP all are mature when one looks at single digit organic revenue growth or even less for IBM and HP.  We are likely to see more of these technology titans continue to compete with each other as we have already seen in the past several years.   Even though this is obvious, predicting the actual M&A decisions by each company has not always been so obvious.  While VMware acquiring Nicira was not too shocking, I don’t think many were predicting Oracle would buy Acme Packet.  More such surprises are likely in 2013 and beyond to the point one has to question how the networking equipment industry landscape will look like in a few years.

Disclosure:  I currently own shares of Cisco and Ericsson mentioned in this blog post.  NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting/advisory services.

What (if Any) Part of the Networking Value Chain Will Be Disrupted by SDN?

I have been following the topic of Software Defined Networking (SDN) for the past three years.  Three year ago the technology was not well known by Wall Street but now is enjoying an intense level of discussion by investors. When the technology was first presented to me three years ago, my initial reaction was SDN would be a risk for technology companies in the Ethernet Switching and Routing markets (e.g. Cisco and Juniper), while creating new opportunities for semiconductor companies selling merchant silicon (e.g. Broadcom and Intel) and newly created SDN software companies.   After visiting a few SDN private companies in the past couple weeks, talking to industry participants and reviewing recent SDN acquisitions by Cisco, Juniper and others, it is actually less clear to me now how SDN will dislocate the current networking value chain.  I am not questioning the value proposition of deploying SDN or the likelihood that it will be a significant investment cycle in the next five years, as I view that as a given.  Rather, the question whose answer has become less obvious to me is which publicly traded companies (if any) are most vulnerable to the upcoming SDN technology cycle and when will this dislocation most likely begin being reflected in these company stock prices.

– Will the ultimate acceptance and deployment of SDN match my simple initial reaction that it will be negative for Cisco and Juniper as switching and routing face competition from more open oriented hardware platforms (Arista and Pica8 are examples of privately held open hardware platforms)?

– Will SDN actually require more complex and high performance hardware platforms in the data center as the real value around SDN will be operational simplicity and cost reduction rather than a focus on hardware costs (data center privately held platform companies include Arista and Plexxi)?

– Will SDN be more of a risk for Layer 4-7 companies that are selling special purpose appliances that may be made obsolete by more multi-functional and integrated software applications in the SDN orchestration layer?

– Will both Layer 2/3 and Layer 4-7 companies be at risk?

– Will SDN create the opportunity for a Network As A Services (NaaS) model and disrupt the entire networking value chain?

– Perhaps, SDN will be some combination or elements of all the above scenarios?

I will be moderating an investment panel at an SDN user conference in a couple weeks with some very smart and experienced investment professionals and hope to get more insight into these topics, which I plan to share on this blog.  In the meantime, lets take a look at how sentiment on SDN’s impact to current publicly traded companies has changed over the past several months and why it is likely SDN developments will not be that relevant to public company stock prices in 2013 as they were in 2012.

The first major wake-up call on SDN to the public markets was July 23rd, 2012, when VMware announced it was acquiring Nicira for $1.26 billion.  Since this announcement occurred after the market close, I was curious to see how Cisco and VMware would trade the following day.  As it turned out, Cisco’s stock lost 6% of its value (about $5 billion in market value) the next day while VMware fell about 0.3% (note VMware announced earnings the same evening it announced the Nicira acquisition which likely muted the impact of the Nicira acquisition to VMware’s stock price movement the next day).  What was interesting about the market reaction was that Cisco lost $5 billion in value while VMware barely budged after spending $1.26 billion for a company that at the time was likely to generate less than $50 million in revenue in calendar 2013.   Clearly, the market at that point viewed SDN as a massive technology risk to Cisco.

Over the course of the next several months, however, Cisco formulated its SDN strategy, made a couple of SDN acquisitions of its own (vCider, Cariden and funded Insieme) and communicated its SDN strategy at its analyst day on December 7th, 2012.  Juniper acquired SDN start-up Contrail and communicated its SDN strategy on January 15th, 2013.  In addition, Nicira/VMware seemed quiet in terms of market penetration and customer deployments post the announcement of the acquisition in July.  So, in the span of 6 months, SDN went from a perceived significant risk factor to Cisco and Juniper to being more of an unknown entity both in terms of potential impact and timing of that impact.  Investors slowly began to realize that SDN would have little impact to 2013 and maybe even 2014 financial results.  Also, Cisco and Juniper are fighting back and will aggressively try to leverage their installed base of equipment to take advantage of SDN as a new revenue opportunity.

Now lets look at Layer 4-7 (e.g. security, load balancing, application delivery control).  What I find interesting here is several of the new SDN private company fund raising in the past several months were for companies attacking this segment of the networking value chain.  Companies that might fall into this category include Embrane, LineRate, PLUMgrid and Pluribis.  Several industry people I speak to suggest that Layer 4-7 will actually be the first area of SDN deployment in data centers given the need to provision and manage policies/applications/security at scale in the data center, which proves to be difficult when managing multiple single purpose appliances and that managing this in the orchestration layer within the SDN model potentially provides an elegant and scalable solution.   It might be coincidental, but in listening to the F5 earnings call this week, I found the following dialogue in the Q&A portion of the call on why F5’s Technology Vertical has not been performing well in the past couple of quarters very interesting as it relates to this topic. Below is how F5 management responded to this question:

“So, on the Tech Vertical issue, you’re right. I mean, the Tech Vertical has trended down over the past several quarters for us, and we believe it’s driven really by a couple of our larger customers that are taking alternative architectural approaches in terms of how they’re building things. So, generally they’re building some basic functionality into that app. And, so we’ve been seeing that going on, and obviously we’re doing something about it.

We’ve got projects going on internally that we believe will provide this type of customer with ways that will make it easier for them to integrate our functionality into the applications [inaudible] that they’ve got.”

Source: Seekingalpha.com

What is interesting here is that the Technology Vertical within F5 results typically includes major data center and cloud providers in the category of Facebook, Apple, Google, Yahoo, etc.  While I do not know which specific customers F5 was referring to in this comment, it is valuable to see how such large-scale operators are already implementing certain parts of the Layer 4-7 stack on their own.  One can easily infer why Layer 4-7 SDN start-ups are getting funded at a nice clip given the potential for disruption here. Obviously, publically traded Layer 4-7 companies are not standing still as this is happening and are already offering virtual instances of their appliances, which I would imagine will ultimately be offered as applications in the SDN orchestration layer.

Finally, start-up Pertino appears to be focused on using SDN as a framework for Network As A Service (NaaS).  While they are not likely to be the only company pursuing such a business plan (perhaps some of the companies mentioned above), it does the raise the option that NaaS could be disruptive to the entire networking value chain especially if we see large players like Amazon, Google and others pursue such an offering or if a new disruptive start-up emerges to be the Saleforce.com of NaaS.

So in summary, SDN it is going to be a very disruptive technology. What was initially viewed as a technology shift that will be a negative for Cisco and Juniper is now potentially more complex to predict in terms of public market investing.  What is likely, however, is that SDN will have little impact to publicly traded stocks in 2013 as other macro and company specific fundamentals will be more relevant to stock prices in my view.  I doubt we will see another VMware/Nicira type of deal in 2013 both in size and in its impact to publically traded stocks like the $5 billion in lost value Cisco experienced the day after this deal was announced.  However, over the course of the next year or two, the potential impact of SDN to publically traded companies and how these companies either capitalize or fall victim to the adoption of SDN will be more evident.  It will certainly be fascinating to watch!

Disclosure:  I currently own shares of Cisco mentioned in this blog post.  NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit or have as clients any company mentioned in this report.

SDN Permeates Ethernet Expo Conference in NYC

I attended the Lightreading Ethernet Expo Conference held in NY this week. While technical topics at this annual conference like 100G, Ethernet based wireless backhaul, small cells, Carrier Ethernet 2.0 etc.… were all prominent, I was fascinated to see how much Software Defined Networking (SDN) permeated the presentations and discussion as compared to the conference a year ago.  With the first Open Networking Summit taken place only about a year ago in October 2011 at Stanford University, it is spectacular to see in the course of only one year how much discussion in both the networking industry and investment community SDN now comprises vs. the actual level of SDN network deployment and revenues.

My current observations regarding the pace of the SDN deployment and the impact to the investment community are as follows:

–       SDN Is Unstoppable:  SDN is unstoppable and will be disruptive across Cloud, Carrier and Enterprise Networks, likely in that order.  There are too many smart people and disruptive companies within the technology industry working to make this happen.  Early high visibility adopters like Google and the recent significant increase in VC funding into the SDN area are also adding to this momentum.

–       The Pace of SDN Deployments Will Not Match the Current “Hype”: The pace of truly open SDN deployment via agreed upon OpenFlow standards will likely be slower relative to the current level of industry and Wall Street “hype”.  This is not, however, unusual for a new disruptive technology like SDN.  A simple example is key features that are required in the Carrier community like MPLS, IPv6 and VLAN Stacking still need to be broadly developed and tested across the vendor community.  In addition, open standards around the Northbound Interface for APIs from the Controller Layer to the Orchestration and Feature Layer are not yet fully specified.

–       Risk To Proprietary Northbound Interface Implementations High: I think there is material risk to a truly open standards approach on the northbound controller interface.  I believe early adopters/innovators in the cloud operator and/or vendor community will drive pre-standard implementations of the northbound interface to facilitate a competitive and time to market advantage over the competition.  The standards work right now seems more focused on controller to data plan standards work (and rightfully so) given the magnitude of work that needs to be done in that area.  To me this raises the question, will SDN see a couple of leading operating systems around the control layer through early leadership in the northbound interface that will lead to only a couple of dominant winners like we see today in server virtualization (e.g. VMW) or Smartphones (Apple and Android operating systems that drive application development)?   When I posed this question to the carriers at the Ethernet Expo conference, they all were cognizant of the risk, but felt that the SDN northbound interface will not follow the server virtualization or smartphone model. The carriers point to the standards process in place to avoid this risk.  Even so, a cloud provider like Google or a leading SDN controller company’s desire to differentiate itself through a more rapid feature deployment via a time to market advantage of the northbound interface could be very tempting.

–       The Window For Early Exits for VCs Is Narrow:  There is a short window for early exits for VCs in their SDN portfolio companies. While there have some nice early exits in 2012 for SDN companies (i.e. Nicira), I think the window will be short for such exits as actual SDN revenues and deployments will be minimal in 2012 and 2013.   My advice to companies and VCs in the SDN market, is don’t be greedy if your exit strategy is to sell the company.  The iron will not always be hot as it is now and don’t let investment bankers fill your head about lofty valuations just because of the VMWare/Nicira deal.  Facebook announced the acquisition of Instagram for over $1B in April of this year.  Do you think Instagram would sell today for over $1B????

–       Valuation Impact to Publicly Traded Networking Companies Is Semi-Permanent:  Even though the migration to SDN will be gradual over the next 3 years, the negative impact to valuation metrics for publicly traded hardware based networking companies is likely to remain.   SDN will take time to penetrate carrier and Enterprise networks, but as I said earlier it is unstoppable.  Investors looking at companies like Cisco, Juniper, F5, Brocade etc.… will constantly have the overhang of what SDN will do to the business models of these companies over the next 3-5 years.  A case in point at the Ethernet Expo conference in NY this week was the presentation from AT&T.  AT&T clearly articulated that their vision of an SDN based network of the future will not only utilize standard, low cost and high volume Ethernet Switches, Storage and Servers, but also the ability to eliminate the deployment of application specific appliances (e.g. DPI, Firewall, Load Balancing, SBC, CDN etc.…).  AT&T envisions these specific network appliances being replaced by virtual appliances written by independent software vendors.  Thus, SDN not only creates an overhang on Switch/Router companies but also network specific appliance companies.   We are likely to see the successful networking companies transform themselves by quickly endorsing the SDN model and selling features as software/virtual appliances rather than hardware with their embedded features.   The challenge they will face is start-ups are being funded to break into the virtual appliance/software model given the technology discontinuity created by SDN.