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Interview: Paul Congdon, former CTO of HP Networking, on the SDN Education Gap

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Interview: Paul Congdon, former CTO of HP Networking, on the SDN Education Gap

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SDNCentral SDN Tallac Congdon Interview July 2013

SDNCentral has partnered with Tallac Networks, a leading SDN training organization, to provide software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) educational content for our members. You can check out our exclusive training course on OpenFlow Switching here, a must-attend for any enterprise or service provider considering SDN.

In conjunction with those efforts, we were able to catch up with Paul Congdon, co-Founder and chief technology officer at Tallac Networks, to get his take on SDN and education. You’re likely to know Paul from his illustrious Hewlett-Packard career.  As a Fellow in HP’s Networking and Communications Lab, he was responsible for research in mobility, wireless and of course, SDN. He also served as CTO for HP’s ProCurve Business Unit, Vice Chair of the IEEE 802.1 committee, and Technical Advisor for the IETF RADIUS Extensions Working Group.

SDNCentral: You’ve spent many years at HP networking and have been involved in SDN and OpenFlow initiatives. What made you decide to join Tallac Networks?

Paul:  I had a very long and successful career at HP, and I am grateful for the many opportunities that has provided.  HP is certainly one of the pioneers in SDN; many thanks to the thought leadership within HP Labs that saw this coming.  For me, leaving HP was a personal decision.   I had been working at a large company for many years and it was time to try something new — it was time to go somewhere where I could leverage my ability to have an impact and participate in the paradigm shift that SDN is creating.  Plus, the three-hour commute to the Bay Area was killing me…

SDNCentral: Tallac is focused on SDN education. What do you see as the biggest gap in SDN knowledge and know-how in the marketplace?

Paul: There is certainly a big gap in the basic knowledge of what SDN is and what it means to an organization.  In the early phases of tectonic shifts like SDN, there is a lot of confusion around the basic definitions, goals and objectives, often created by competing vendors as they jockey for a position in the new world.  We need people to think differently about how to design and operate networks, not become confused with vague messages about how this relates to what you have purchased in the past.

The unfortunate thing is that the people who have cut their teeth and deployed this technology aren’t in a position to educate the rest of the world about it. The Googles, eBays, Microsofts and Goldman Sachs of the world have made this work to advance their businesses, but they don’t have the incentive or time to provide the in-depth education needed by the rest of the world.  So we need people that have hands-on experience building and deploying SDN to provide education and share best practices.

SDNCentral: Your colleague, Matt Davy, is teaching an SDN 201 course at SDNUniversity™–can you describe the course in a few sentences? 

Paul: The course is focused on the realities and implications of current OpenFlow implementations.  Matt provides perspective on how different SDN implementations can impact your deployment.  He identifies what you should be looking for when purchasing an OpenFlow solution to meet a specific need.  It isn’t easy to just slam OpenFlow into an existing switch, and there are many different ways to implement the solution.  The choices vendors make and the restrictions that are created could have implications on how you use it.

SDNCentral: In your opinion, what’s the most valuable part of Matt’s course?

Paul: Perhaps the most valuable aspect is the real talk you get from a real pioneer in the space.  Matt has first-hand experience designing and deploying huge networks based upon SDN.  He has a very vendor neutral position and can speak with authority on the implications of different solutions and different product capabilities

SDNCentral: Who do you think can benefit the most from this course? And how do you see the premium seminar series as compared to the MOOCs organized by WVNet or Georgia Tech?

Paul: Matt brings things down to earth, so any decision maker or technical consultant can benefit from Matt’s course.  The course is targeted at people who will deploy SDN and transform their business with the power they have at hand.  I believe this is different than the other seminar series you reference because it is developed and delivered by experts in the field, people who have battle scars from developing and deploying the technology.  The other courses are more academic and generalized around the basic technology.  Understanding the basics is important, and you’ll get that with Matt, but you’ll also get insights from real hands-on experience.

SDNCentral: What’s your long-term vision for SDN education?

Paul: Well, we want to drive SDN into the mainstream, make it part of network IT’s everyday life — so, like any good training company delivering new knowledge into the market, we want to plan for a cycle of obsolescence and renewal. It may sound funny, but we want to get to the point where our older education material becomes obsolete, because we have driven SDN into the mainstream and we have successfully helped move people to the next level.

Our long-term vision is to develop and deliver education that helps change the way people think about designing and operating networks, education that helps them think about how to build applications that exploit the network and how to control the operation of the network in a way to advance their business objectives.

SDNCentral: Where do you see the SDN market going in the next two years? What are your thoughts around how the networking vendors will evolve to meet market needs?

Paul: Great question. We are still early in the evolution of SDN, so for the next two years, we will be proving out the technology and getting it established in more mainstream parts of the network, such as the campus and wireless access layer.

I think SDN will begin to make an impact beyond the data center, where it is receiving the most attention today.  Vendors will have to evolve to address customer demands, perhaps somewhat like how the server industry had to evolve. Years ago, there were proprietary operating systems and in-house CPU designs, but at some point, vendors were pressured to make statements about open APIs and portable platforms.  Then vendors began to offer two distinct lines of servers (x86 and legacy CPU — one had higher margins than the other).  Then came Linux-based solutions and finally, for some customers, whitebox solutions direct from ODMs.

I’m not saying the networking industry will follow the server industry tit-for-tat.  Networking is a bit of a different animal. But the trend for vendors toward more openness and lower margins is clear.  Different customers will have different demands, and vendors will have to address them with a rich portfolio of solutions — there won’t be a one-size-fits-all networking solution, and thus, the flexibility of SDN will need to become a foundational technology for vendors.  Vendors will depend on SDN at the heart of their products, just like Linux is now a fundamental component of many networking devices. SDN will allow vendors to deliver solutions that vary on how much control is available to the end customer.  So, vendors will have to respond quickly to the diversity of customers and their changing needs by making SDN foundational.


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