I think the tendency when looking back on conferences is to accentuate the positive. People put a lot of time into crafting their presentations, building their demos, and managing the logistics of the conference, so we want to acknowledge all of that hard work. So let me start there and say that the event logistics were impeccably handled. ONS 2013 certainly had the flair that you would expect with a first-class conference.
But aside from the pizzazz, I actually left the conference somewhat disappointed. I believe we will look back on this conference as the point at which we knew that SDN had gone from technology exploration to sales.
For me, it all started before the introductory keynote. The opening (a video production where Vint Cerf parachutes in a la the 2012 London Games) was a huge departure from a technology-centric conference from just a year ago. It was supposed to be funny, but it came off as forced and made one of the brilliant technology minds of our time have to fumble through an awkward transition into actual technology discussion.
Then Guru Parulkar led off the event making two points:
- ONS is driven by content, not sponsors – He wanted to make sure that the conference was focused on technology and not on advancing corporate agendas. He made a point of saying that all the speaking slots were driven by ideas, a meritocratic approach to conference organization.
- Beware of SDN Washing – He painstakingly defined SDN as the separation of control and forwarding with an emphasis on open APIs. He warned the audience that vendors and customers might try to SDN Wash, and that the onus was on the audience to hold speakers to a high standard.
Ok, this actually sounded promising if not a bit forced. But in that very same opening keynote – designed to set the stage for the rest of the conference mind you – Arista’s CEO Jayshree Ullal took the stage and delivered a 30-minute product pitch, complete the with dreaded logo slide and customer quotes about Arista’s flagship operating system EOS.
I don’t begrudge Arista for taking advantage of a captive audience, but this keynote really did set the stage for the rest of the event. We have officially moved beyond technology discussion and into sales mode.
This dynamic wasn’t purely an opening keynote issue – it tainted just about every aspect of this vendor-driven conference. The booths were a little bigger, the demos a little slicker. The attendees were a little less technical than last year’s and a bit more built for sales and marketing. The presentations were a bit snazzier and product-focused and a little less provocative. And the side conversations were a little less speculative and a bit more salesy.
And to be fair, this was true even in the sessions where my own company had a speaking slot. The VC and Hot Startups discussion was essentially an opportunity for 4 SDN startups to pitch product. We avoided the perhaps more interesting topics of how VCs and investors navigate a world where we have gone from 0 to 250+ companies that claim to be SDN in the past 3 years (using number of SDNCentral companies as a proxy for the data here). A meaningful conversation might have centered on how to spot the gems amidst the frauds, where to place bets, which business models are interesting, how we see the competitive landscape emerging, which markets are likely to yield results, and how this might trigger industry consolidation. But we pitched product (by the way, special nod to Acclera, which I thought was interesting in the WiFi space).
For me, the shift to a more business-oriented conference comes too early. I expect this out of a mature technology area where it is about sales and market share. But SDN is still in its formative stages, too new to succumb to all of this. We don’t need a networking bazaar to peddle our wares; we need a solid forum where we can sync up, learn about what people are doing, and explore potential technology directions without the burden of having to make the next quarter. I expect the keynotes to be less about products and more about possibilities. Would it have been so hard to have more dedicated discussions about hybrid SDN? Could we not talk frankly about the topics that are top of mind like the interaction between ONF and OpenDaylight?
We seem to have lost the authenticity here. And the reality is that once this happens, the genie never goes back into the bottle. So I guess the question is where should we collectively look to get the kind of technology kinship and collaboration we need to move this forward? Where will we convene to talk openly and honestly, without vendor or corporate allegiance? I think it is most certainly not ONS 2014.