Seventeen organizations have formed a group to set standards for software-defined networking, which would give network operators the ability to virtualize network resources

The next revolution in networking is months away

A group of network equipment and software companies have joined hands with some of the biggest network operators and content providers to hone protocols for what one calls a coming “quantum leap” in network control.

The Open Networking Foundation, which includes Cisco Systems Inc., Juniper Networks Inc., Brocade, IBM, Citrix Inc., Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, are taking six years of university lab work to finalize the open building blocks of what’s being called software defined networking.

SDN would give network operators the ability to virtualize network resources, being able to dynamically improve latency or security on demand, says Paul McNab, vice-president and chief technology officer of Cisco’s switching and services group.

Sites like Facebook, Google or Yahoo would be able to tailor their networks so searches would be blindingly fast, he said, while stock exchanges could assure brokerage customers on the other side of the globe they’d get financial data as fast as a dealer beside the exchange.

Or, it could be programmed to order certain routers to be powered down during off-peak power periods.

Sometime in the next six to 12 months the first fruits of the foundation’s work should be included in data centre networking products, says McNab. In Cisco’s case, the capability would be built into the NX-OS operating system of its high end Nexus switches. Eventually, it said, will be added to the more popular IOS operating system for edge switches.

It would enable large network operators to extract intelligence from the network to improve application performance, he said. Even companies with data centres with 500 servers could be able to take advantage of the technology, he said.

One main advantage is that it would allow a network controller to see hundreds or thousands of switches as a single unit.

“If the vendors embrace this and to it properly, it can add a lot of value to networking,” said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of research at the Yankee Group.

Software defined networking is still a work in progress, but progress has been sufficient for commercial companies to band together, said Scott Schenker, a University of Berkley computer science professor and one of the group who began examining the idea six years ago.

At the heart, says the foundation, are several components including a programming interface called OpenFlow for controlling how packets are forwarded to and a set of global management interfaces upon which more advanced management tools can be built. The first task of ONF will be to finalize the OpenFlow standard and encourage its adoption by freely licensing it to all member companies. It will then define global management interfaces.

McNab said OpenFlow can be included in the OpenStack cloud computing platform backed by Cisco, Citrix and others.

“Everybody in the industry knew we had to find a better way to manage networks,” says Schenker. Many organizations were working on SDN and now is the right time to bring them together.

Service providers want to buy technology that uses this approach so they can manage their networks better, he said, while hardware and software companies want well-defined standards they can build to.

Some capabilities are already in software from some manufacturers, including the OpenFlow vSwitch in Citrix’s Xen hypervisor.

Sunil Potti, Citrix’s vice-president of product marketing for cloud and networking, said it would allow a network controller to control both physical and virtual networking devices.

“OpenFlow enables this next generation architecture of networking which separates the control logic from the data plane,” he said. “That’s an architectural game-changer for the network … Just like servers got revolutionized through virtualization, and storage is in that process, the network has been the last to do so. OpenFlow is not the be all and end all, but it’s the first of major steps of networking that’s going to be revolutionlized.”

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