The Future Of SDN Is Up In The Air

The announcement this week that Riverbed is buying Xirrus was a huge sign that the user-facing edge of the network is the new battleground for SDN and SD-WAN adoption. Riverbed is coming off a number of recent acquisitions in the SDN space, including Ocedo just over a year ago. So, why then, would Riverbed chase down a wireless company when they’re so focused on the wiring behind the walls?

The New User Experience

When SDN was a pile of buzzwords attached to an idea that had just come out of Stanford, a lot of people were trying to figure out just what exactly SDN could offer them in terms of their network. Things like network slicing were the first big pieces to be put up before things like orchestration, programmability, and APIs were really brought to the fore. People were trying to figure out how to make this hot new thing work for them. Well, almost everyone.

Wireless professionals are a bit jaded when it comes to SDN. That’s because they’ve seen it already in the form of controller-based solutions. The idea that a central device can issue commands to remote access devices and control configurations easily? Airespace was doing that over a decade ago before they got bought by Cisco. Programmability is a moot point to people that can import thousands of access points into a device and automatically have new SSIDs being broadcast on them all in a matter of seconds. Even the new crop of “controllerless” wireless systems on the market still have a central control infrastructure that sends commands to the APs. Much like we’ve found in recent years with SDN, removing the control plane from the data plane path has significant advantages.

So, what would it take to excite wireless pros about SDN? Well, as it turns out, the issue comes down to the user side of the equation. Wireless networks work very well in today’s enterprise. They form the backbone of user connectivity. Companies like Aruba are experimenting with all-wireless offices. The concept is crazy at first glance. How will users communicate without phones? As it turns out, most of them have been using instant messengers and soft phone programs for years. Their communications infrastructure has changed significantly since I learned how to install phone systems years ago. But what hasn’t changed is the need to get these applications to play nicely with each other.

Application behavior and analysis is a huge selling point for SDN and, by extension, SD-WAN. Being able to classify application traffic running on a desktop and treat it differently based on criteria like voice traffic versus web browsing traffic is huge for network professionals. This means the complicated configurations of QoS back in the day can be abstracted out of the network devices and handled by more intelligent systems further up the stack. The hard work can be done where it should be done – by systems with unencumbered CPUs making intelligent decisions rather than by devices that are processing packets as quickly as possible. These decisions can only be made if the traffic is correctly marked and identified as close to the point of origin as possible. That’s where Riverbed and Xirrus come into play.

Extending Your Brains To Your Fingers

By purchasing a company like Xirrus, Riverbed can build on their plans for SDN and SD-WAN by incorporating their software technology into the wireless edge. By classifying the applications where they live, the wireless APs can provide the right information to the SDN processes to ensure traffic is dealt with properly as it flies through the network. With SD-WAN technologies, that can mean making sure the web browsing traffic is sent through local internet links when traffic meant for main sites, like communications or enterprise applications, can be sent via encrypted tunnels and monitored for SLA performance.

Network professionals can utilize SDN and SD-WAN to make things run much more smoothly for remote users without the need to install cumbersome appliances at the edge to do the classification. Instead, the remote APs now become the devices needed to make this happen. It’s brilliant when you realize how much more effective it can be to deploy a larger number of connectivity devices that contain software for application analysis than it is to drop a huge server into a branch office where it’s not needed.

With the deployment of these remote devices, Riverbed can continue to build on the software side of technology by increasing the capabilities of these devices while not requiring new hardware every time a change comes out. You may need to upgrade your APs when a new technology shift happens in hardware, like when 802.11ax is finally released, but that shouldn’t happen for years. Instead, you can enjoy the benefits of using SDN and SD-WAN to accelerate your user’s applications.

Tom’s Take

Fortinet bought Meru. HPE bought Aruba. Now, Riverbed is buying Xirrus. The consolidation of the wireless market is about more than just finding a solution to augment your campus networking. It’s about building a platform that uses wireless networking as a delivery mechanism to provide additional value to users. The spectrum part of wireless is always going to be hard to do properly. Now, the additional benefit of turning those devices into SDN sensors is a huge value point for enterprise networking professionals as well. What better way to magically deploy SDN in your network than to flip a switch and have it everywhere all at once?

A Complicated World Without Wires


Another Field Day is in the books. Wireless Field Day 5 was the first that I’d been to in almost two years. I think that had more to do with the great amount of talent that exists in the wireless space. Of course, it does help that now I’m behind the scenes and not doing my best to drink from the firehose of 802.11ac transitions and channel architecture discussions. That’s not to say that a few things didn’t absorb into my head.

Analysis is King

I’ve seen talks from companies like Fluke and Metageek before at Wireless Field Day. It was a joy to see them back again for more discussion about new topics. For Fluke, that involved plans to include 802.11ac in their planning and analysis tools. This is going to be important going forward to help figure out the best way to setup new high-speed deployments. For Metageek, it was all about showing us how they are quickly becoming the go-to folks for packet analysis and visual diagramming. Cisco has tapped them to provide analysis for CleanAir. That’s pretty high praise indeed. Their EyePA tool is an amazing peek into what’s possible when you take the torrent of data provided by wireless connections and visualize it.

Speaking of analytics, I was very impressed to see what 7signal and WildPackets were pulling out of the air. WildPackets is also using a tool to capture 802.11ac traffic, OmniPeek. A lot of the delegates were happy to see that 11ac had been added in the most recent release. 7signal has some crazy sensors that they can deploy into your environment to give you a very accurate picture of what’s going on. As the CTO, Veli-Pekka Ketonen told me, “You can hope for about 5% assurance when you just walk around and measure manually. We can give you 95% consistently.”

It’s Not Your AP, It’s How You Use It

The other thing that impressed me from the Wireless Field Day 5 sponsors was the ways in which APs were being used. Aerohive took their existing AP infrastructure and started adding features like self-registration guest portals. I loved that you could follow a Twitter account and get your guest PPSK password via DM. It just shows the power of social media when it interacts with wireless. AirTight took the social integration to an entirely different level. They are leveraging social accounts through Facebook and Twitter to offer free guest wifi access. In a world where free wifi is assumed to be a given, it’s nice to see vendors figuring out how to make social work for them with likes and follows in exchange for access.

That’s not to say that software was king of the hill. Xirrus stepped up to the the stage for a first-time appearance at Wireless Field Day. They have a very unique architecture, to say the least. Their CEO weathered the questions from the delegates and live viewers quite well compared to some of the heat that I’ve seen put on Xirrus in the past. I think the delegates came away from the event with a greater respect for what Xirrus is trying to do with their array architecture. Meru also presenter for the first time and talked about their unique perspective with an architecture based on using single-channel APs to alleviate issues in the airspace. I think their story has a lot to do with specific verticals and challenging environments, as outlined by Chris Carey from Bellarmine College, who spoke about his experiences.

If you’d like to watch the videos from Wireless Field Day 5, you can see them on Youtube or Vimeo.  You can also read through the delegates thoughts at the Wireless Field Day 5 page.

Tom’s Take

Wireless growing by leaps and bounds. It’s no longer just throwing up a couple of radio bridges and offering a network to a person or two with laptops in your environment. The interaction of mobility and security have led to dense deployments with the need to keep tabs on what the users are doing through analytics like those provided by Meru and Motorola. We’ve now moved past focusing on protocols like 802.11ac and instead on how to improve the lives of the users via guest registration portals and self enrollment like Aerohive and AirTight. And we can’t forget that the explosion of wireless means we need to be able to see what’s going on, whether it be packet capture or airspace monitoring. I think the group at Wireless Field Day 5 did an amazing job of showing how mature the wireless space has become in such as short time. I am really looking forward to what Wireless Field Day 6 will bring in 2014.


Wireless Field Day 5 doesn’t happen without the help of the sponsors. They each cover a portion of the travel and lodging costs of the delegates. Some even choose to provide takeaways like pens, coffee mugs, and even evaluation equipment. That doesn’t mean that they are “buying” a review. No Wireless Field Day delegate is required to write about what they see. If they do choose to write, they don’t have to write a positive review. Independence means no restrictions. No sponsor every asks for consideration in a review and they are never promised anything. What you read from myself and the delegates is their honest and uninfluenced opinion.