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Forget the tin, networking is becoming a software game

03 Sep 2012

Enterprise networking always was a complex environment, made more so by the proliferation of vendors, protocols, configurations, devices and more which are required to shift bits and bytes from one place to the other.

Making it all easier to manage is the goal of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), an organisation advancing the case for ‘software defined networking’ and the OpenFlow protocol. In effect, what it does is pour a big bottle of vanilla over the products of every networking vendor – and, perhaps incredibly, it does so with their apparent blessing.

In a fuzzy telephone interview, ONF executive director Dan Pitt said its work is to take out the hundreds or thousands of distributed signals and controls and put them into a centralised control point.

“By doing this, we enable switches to be simpler. Ordinary programmers and languages can be used to programme the network to do what it needs to do. Software, in effect, is used to define the network operation by itself.”

A quick look at ONF’s membership page throws up a bit of a surprise: major makers of networking tin have put their names down in what can certainly be seen as an initiative which completely commoditises their hardware. But, says Pitt, “While ONF standards result in a reduction in the complexity and cost of network equipment, there is still high value in silicon, but not in the basics. The products [of various vendors] are still distinguishable. A lot of effort is duplicated, such as the proprietary operating systems by vendors.” It is this that ONF seeks to remove.

Also, Pitt continued, developments in networking tend to be glacial by ICT industry standards. “For example, development and acceptance of a new operating protocol takes years; with software defined networking, a new routing algorithm can be ready in three weeks.”

What that means is an acceleration of innovation in the field of networking.

User, not vendor, benefit

More than that, the method of software defined networking removes a considerable overhead – that of manually configuring the routers and other devices which comprise the corporate network. “The way [most organisations] deal with devices today is to configure them with command-line interfaces, manually assigning ports and applications in a process that can take weeks. With OpenFlow, it is possible to autoconfig virtually the entire network independent of the physical devices,” says Pitt. That makes for a big saving in operational expenditure – and he says it eliminates errors.

There is perhaps a hint at covert vendor resistance to a concept which is a great leveler in Pitt’s comment that ONF members ‘publically champion’ OpenFlow. “The approaches taken differ. The first step is to add OpenFlow to existing software and routers. If this affect margins, there will be a correction [to business models]. Right now, we see a lot of positioning; what is clear is that this is of great benefit to users and it falls to vendors to figure out how the design state is worked into profitability. There will be a change as networking increasingly becomes a software, rather than hardware discipline.”


OpenFlow has caught the attention of less-than-trivial companies like Google; it’s global data centre WAN is 100% OpenFlow-based. It delivers 95% network utilisation and claims simpler configuration, management and provisioning. Other indeterminate metrics provided by ONF include ‘hitless upgrades, faster failure handling, faster Test Traffic Measurement’.

Meanwhile, Genesis Hosting in Chicago has deployed OpenFlow to support multi-tenant virtual networking, interoperable with a legacy network. It claims 50% less administration, 60% more IP address efficiency and the fabled ‘five 9s’: 99.999% availability.

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