That will lead to a time when networks will be able to detect and respond to the needs of each application, Howard said. The task of matching up application requirements with network capacity, whether in a data center or in a service provider's cloud, will be over.
But this won't happen overnight on a giant network like AT&T's, he said. The carrier's goal for this year is to have 55 percent of its network functions running on SDN.
The outlook isn't so great for established networking vendors like Cisco Systems, IHS anslyst Cliff Grossner said. Cisco's traditional business has been built around dedicated routers and switches running proprietary software. Grossner compared this to IBM's one-time reliance on mainframes.
"Some of these changes just don't match their current model at all," he said.
Like IBM, Cisco is likely to shift its business toward software and services, a process that has already begun, Grossner said.
Reached for comment, Cisco defended its place in open networking, saying it's working with several open-source organizations.
"Cisco is playing a leading role shaping the communications industry transformation that is underway, working closely with leading service providers to shape the future of the industry," the company said in a statement.
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