Ex-Facebook exec pushes software-defined networks

SAN FRANCISCO  — The migration toward software-defined networks will move faster than carriers’ migration to IP (Internet Protocol) in the late 1990s, says Facebook’s former technical operations chief.

Vendors and network administrators are starting to embrace SDN (software-defined networking) because network operators need more control over their infrastructures and want to customize them more for their own needs, Jonathan Heiliger, who resigned as Facebook’s vice-president of technical operations last month, said Wednesday at the Open Networking Summit at Stanford University. More than 600 participants discussed technology that controls networks independently of the underlying hardware infrastructure.

Just as the telecommunications industry once moved to IP from specialized systems such as ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), it will adopt SDN in place of unique network architectures for each vendor, Heiliger said. Adopting a common standard for SDN will help vendors to compete, just as IP did, but it will also help carriers deploy new services and even allow their enterprise customers to implement services between their own sites over the carrier network, he said.

Because of those motivations, the migration to SDN will take less time than the gradual move to IP, which took several years, Heiliger said. But it won’t begin for another 18 to 24 months, he added. The entire software stack for SDN needs to mature first, he said.

Before he left Facebook, Heiliger helped to found the Open Networking Foundation, which is developing OpenFlow and other standards for SDN. Heiliger announced his plans to leave Facebook earlier this year and is now an entrepreneur and investor.

OpenFlow grew out of a joint research project between Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. With OpenFlow, a programmable controller is in charge of determining routes and priorities throughout a network. The controller implements the network configuration and settings via flow tables that reside on the switches in the network. OpenFlow is the common protocol for communication between controllers and switches from various vendors.

Heiliger said the open nature of the organization is part of what motivated him to get involved with the ONF. The openness of IP fed the rapid innovation that happened in IP networks, and Facebook would not have been possible without open-source software, he said. “Innovation is not possible without openness,” Heiliger said. Proprietary software was too constraining to allow the rapid innovation that has gone into creating the social-networking service.

Likewise, proprietary firmware in networking gear today constrains network operators, forcing them to integrate each vendor’s technology into the network.

“If I want to have a network management system, I have to figure out how to program my network management system to access the Cisco box versus a Juniper box, versus some other third-party box,” Heiliger said.

Likewise, the firmware in networking gear today constrains network operators, forcing them to build “wrappers” in their management software for devices from different vendors, Heiliger said. For example, to make sure a packet traverses the network with a certain quality of service, administrators need to make sure that the variables on a wide variety of gear are set correctly. They should be able to have that packet sent in the desired way without regard for the underlying network, he said.

“I don’t want to have to worry about it. I want another intelligent piece of software to have to worry about it,” Heiliger said.

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