ONUG Spring 2015 & the Cancer of Vendor Sponsorship

Based on feedback from attendees of earlier ONUG events, I was looking forward to this conference. Right now, most of my customer conversations are at the “1a” level (“What is SDN? What does my company mean when we say SDN?”). There are certainly some that are more sophisticated (we have paying customers for our controller, after all), but I was looking forward to a concentrated gathering of users to hear what’s on their minds.

Here are my observations from Day 1:

Speaking of vendors–most of the vendor attendees were small startups, many in the SD-WAN space. Of the established players, Juniper was notably absent. And despite the clear interest in white-box with this group, Cumulus opted not to invest in this event.

There were some bright spots, notably Adrian Cockcroft’s talk about how to DevOps. You can view his slides here. Ted Turner from Intuit (Ananda Rajagopal’s guest) later in the day talked about how Intuit is taking 15-year-old apps and breaking them into microservices, and then leveraging AWS for the non-core portions of the app workflow. The reliance on AWS for a significant portion of one’s IT operations was actually a fairly common theme in both speaker and offline comments.

Unfortunately, the rest of Day 1 was given over to “Working Group test results presentations”, aka the aforementioned vendor panels. Or as Andre Kindness of Forrester put it:

Today the morning sessions were closed to us vendors–fair enough, I suppose…on the one hand, I can appreciate users’ desire for frank discussions without getting aggressive phone calls to their management from certain suppliers. On the other hand, hearing what users are really struggling with (which isn’t always the same thing as engineering’s neat ideas) is always instructive for those of us who might be in a position to help provide solutions. I’d be good with seats in the peanut gallery and a strict behind-the-red-velvet-rope, listen-only policy for vendors for these sessions–especially since there was no bar on media attendees.

The first open session of today featured Najam Ahmad of Facebook. Facebook is doing some very interesting things with their infrastructure, and although it’s certainly not, in its entirety, a blueprint for most other companies, there are always interesting nuggets in their presentations that can be applied in other contexts. For example, when an audience member asked about getting the right skillsets in the networking organization, here’s what he said (slightly paraphrasing):

“We have a free-hacking month once a year. Anyone can go work on any team they’re interested in, and at the end of the month, if they want, they can stay with that team, or go back to their old team. For a while we weren’t getting any of the software engineers. Networking just seemed boring and weird to them. Then we started framing it as a big distributed systems project, and that started drawing them in. Then you have the problem of developers not knowing much about networking and vice versa, so we paired networking people with software devs and had them work together on projects, with the expectation that each would learn from the other. Now everyone on our team codes, to some extent. Some more, some less, but they all have an appreciation for each others’ knowledge and skills.”

There were some luncheon sessions that I couldn’t stay focused on because they mostly had the same problem as Day 1’s panels. This was followed by an investor panel, which mostly focused on two questions:

  1. Will SDN/NFV/whitebox hurt Cisco?
  2. What are the prospects for startups in these areas?

On #1, the view was that if Cisco and other established networking vendors lay down strong strategies now, once we start seeing active deployments a year or so from now, it shouldn’t make a significant difference for them. The hype around SDN of a year or so ago, which appeared to be hurting Cisco’s stock price, has died down as the reality of the length of this transition (10 years, one speaker posited, which seems very likely) has set in, and there’s plenty of time to get the go-to-market execution in place. Interestingly, the institutional investor commented that he didn’t see VMware NSX breaking out beyond the security segmentation use case it’s currently positioning. NSX’s architecture as a vertically integrated software stack anchored to a specific hypervisor probably does limit its use cases more than other, more general-purpose controllers, but given the very long runway the same speaker gave other vendors in the space to work out their strategies, I was left wondering what other knowledge and commentary was behind the comment.

On #2, no one expected any significant moves to IPOs or strong exits in the next year, owing to the expected leadtime on real SDN deployments. One speaker also commented that the bar would likely be higher for IPOs than in past cycles, with an expectation that the company actually be making money before entering into the public markets. That would be refreshing, wouldn’t it?

The final session today was a discussion on DevOps, which was covered very adequately by other bloggers. In fact, here are links to several other live blogs posted by my Networking Field Day friends:

ONUG Spring 2015 Live Blog – Day 1 (Ethan Banks)

ONUG Spring 2015 Live Blog – Day 2 (Ethan Banks)

Tom Hollingsworth/John Herbert – Day 1

Liveblog from ONUG Day 2 (John Herbert)

Now, about the “cancer” comment in the title of this post: I had gone all the way over to the other side of the world (Paris, not horrible) in March to the MPLS/SDN/NFV World Congress, having heard good things about it from past attendees. I heard from the same people (vendors) I’ve heard from many times at conferences in the US. I already know my colleagues’ and competitors’ schticks. I don’t need to hear it again. ONUG turned out to be much the same. I said this to an analyst friend at Gartner Data Center a couple of years ago. I’m dreading ONS at this point. I get that events are revenue opportunities (and for Mr. Lippis of ONUG, a primary one), and also that when vendors pony up large chunks of money to help cover the costs of the events, the marketing departments expect something (visibility, since the value of leads is honestly very negligible) in return. But–YUCK. I know I’m not the only one who’s tired of hearing the same thing at every event. There have to be other, better ways to do this.

Update: Some ideas to get the ball rolling here.

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