SDN: Centralized AND Distributed

First published on Linkedin, the day before the NFC Championship

When the current NFL season started, one of the expected dramas was whether the talented Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, would give himself freely to a new era of coaching, where all the calls would be made from the sideline. Highly analyzed, scripted and rehearsed, with the quarterback reduced to a “game manager”. Last Sunday, when Aaron Rodgers made an audible, at the line of scrimmage, with 2 minutes and 18 seconds to go, needing a first down to prevent the opposing team from getting the ball back, the result was a big play to a favorite target, Davante Adams. That play and a subsequent first down sealed the game for the Packers. When the Packers head coach was asked about the Rodgers audible, he reportedly laughed and said, “He can do what he wants”. Controversy over.

While there are talented players in defense for the Packers, two California teams have shown this season how easy it is to pick them apart: The San Diego Chargers and The San Francisco 49ers. Tomorrow, the Packers will return to Santa Clara, where they were thrashed by the 49ers only a few weeks ago. Many expect more of the same, and rightfully so. The Packers executed badly last time, including turning the ball over on the first series, setting up a 49ers scoring drive. In addition, the Packers were too predictable. If the 49ers put a man in motion, the Packers defense followed the man signaling they were in man-to-man coverage. When the Packers did not follow the man in motion, they were signaling they were staying in zone coverage. This predictability against well designed and executed plays was a disaster for the Packers. Unless the Packers approach the NFC Championship game differently, more of the same would be a reasonable expectation.

If you are a fan of “simple”, then the 49ers are your team. The schemes are simple, the talent is high, and the execution is great. Simple, smart, solid, and successful. That’s a good formula if your strategy is simple. The Packers are not getting a win on the road, or a trip to the Super Bowl unless they crack the very successful 49ers code. Especially as it appears the 49ers have already cracked the Packers code, in addition to having a more talented team overall.

In that great TV show, “The West Wing”, there was this narrative about how the Presidency had become a paragon of mediocrity. Every time an important issue would come up, the President would run to the middle, run to the safe ground. Ultimately, his political capital was eroding, his friends did not respect him, and his enemies did not fear him. In a flash of made for TV drama, the President’s chief of staff impulsively decided it was time to change the ball game, and declared, from now on, the strategy was going to be “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”. Bartlet was the name of the fictional President. This is what the Packers have to do if they are to have any chance against the much better 49ers. Let Rodgers be Rodgers – they have to leverage distributed intelligence at the line of scrimmage.

The previous coach of the Packers tells a story of how in one 2014 game, Rodgers called an audible, twice, in the same play, with the last audible being 8 seconds before the snap. They were on the road, and with 8 seconds to go before the snap, Rodgers got the entire offense on the same page as to what the play was going to be. The result was good, very good.

Centralized intelligence is important, in football, and in networking. It has never been more important given the ability to leverage huge amounts of centralized compute, storage, and information to achieve insights that could never be achieved by smaller-scale distributed resources. That is ultimately why SDN is an important (new) conversation. However, as the football analogy above attempts to show, there is also nothing like the vision from the ground level, from the point of view of the quarterback standing at the line of scrimmage, seeing the little adjustments of the opposition, sensing the favorable matchups that are forming, and deciding what is the best option.

In networking as in football, it is not a matter of centralized OR distributed, it is a matter of centralized AND distributed. The power of AND. Will the Packers get the right balance between centralized and distributed during the NFC Championship game or will the overwhelming talent and brilliant execution of the simple 49ers schemes win out? Likely the latter, especially as the 49ers are playing at home. The only chance the Packers have though is to get a little more unpredictable on defense, not more complex, just less obvious, and to let the distributed talent be the distributed talent. As we move into a world of state-sponsored cyber threats, it is hard not to think, the same is true for networking; notwithstanding the value of well-executed simple – that’s a pretty good strategy as well, as the 49ers will display in the NFC Championship game.

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