Extreme Networks (EXTR) has pulled the covers off its version of software-defined networking (SDN), that technology everyone’s talking about but few can have an intelligent conversation about what it actually is. And at first glance, it looks as though Extreme has gotten the gist of SDN in both technology and spirit.

The company’s SDN platform is based on the open source OpenDaylight project and is truly open and standards-based, so customers don’t have to do a rip and replace to move to SDN. Rather, the controller—which is the heart of Extreme’s SDN strategy—along with Extreme’s ecosystem of 40 technology partners together offer a path for customers to leverage the technology they have already while being able to take advantage of the benefits of SDN.

“This is an evolutionary SDN platform,” said Bob Noel, senior director of Solutions Marketing at Extreme. “We call it evolutionary because customers don’t need to do anything new to get to SDN; they can leverage what they have already.”

Noel noted that most, if not all, SDN flavors today are either OpenFlow-based or proprietary, both of which are rigid and require hardware replacement. “ONF is based on OpenFlow, but it is considered ‘greenfield’ because customers have to have OpenFlow-capable infrastructure. They can’t integrate technology they own today,” he said.

(In all fairness, it should be noted Extreme had announced an SDN strategy in 2012 that was based on OpenFlow. Apparently, that strategy has since been abandoned in favor of OpenDaylight.)

Proprietary SDN, meanwhile, promotes vendor lock-in, which goes against the spirit of SDN. Noel pointed to Cisco Systems’ (CSCO) Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) technology as a prime proprietary technology.

“Cisco has a lot to lose in the SDN environment because they own 70 percent of the networking market,” he said. “What they are doing with ACI is pure vendor lock-in—it requires the purchase of the Nexus 9000 switch, and it’s not backwards-compatible with switches that customers already have. Customers need to buy new switches, and they are the big, expensive ones that sit in the data center, not a small investment.”

The OpenDaylight API, however, promotes a completely open, standards-based environment, which means customers don’t have to do anything to their network beyond installing the SDN controller.

Said controller also raises the SDN bar by through its network management, network access control, application analytics and wireless controller technology, Noel said. “We will differentiate through our expertise in SDN orchestration capability. Analytics are especially important in SDN because users need visibility at the application and network levels.”

Dan Dulac, vice president of Global Solutions Engineering, expanded on the importance of analytics: “You have the concept of overlay and underlay protocols, and in SDN those need to work in unison as the orchestration engine. That’s where analytics is so important—to make sure those protocols are working correctly and in unison,” he said. The controller, both noted, stands alone in its ability to provide those analytics capabilities.

So how has Extreme been able to achieve what seems to be a simple enough option for SDN, and one that doesn’t cost the customer an arm and a leg to implement?

“We believe we are the right-size company to do this,” Noel said. “We’ve shipped more than 10 million SDN-ready ports, so we’re big enough to influence and impact the industry, but we don’t have the install base that Cisco does so we don’t have to protect it.

“We also have the engineering ability and the customer base, but we will flourish and sell more hardware through our partners because of our ability to migrate customers from where they are today with what they already have,” he added.

And that, I believe, is the true spirit of an open network.