Hardware still plays an innovative role in software-defined networking

A emerging Ottawa-based networking company is looking to simplify software-defined networking (SDN) by providing easy programming capabilities and leveraging open standards. But while the emphasis on SDN to date has been on the software aspect, the hardware itself is still part of what makes it beneficial for both enterprises and service providers.

Corsa Technology just announced its new DP2000 series, an open programmable switching and routing platform that supports 10G and 100G subscriber-level networking, on-demand services, and real-time network tuning. The platform is built for WAN and metro applications, said Carolyn Rabb, Corsa’s vice president of product management, as network architects are struggling not only to handle a marked uptick in data traffic volume, but also diversity.

Metro and service provider WANs are seeing a spike in traffic, thanks in part to video and the Internet of Things (IoT), she said, which has led to aggregation points in the network suffering increased congestion. Corsa’s DP2000 is designed to do something that been done with computing for years – virtualizing switching and routing. Network architects and operators can dynamically partition hardware into independent virtual SDN switches or routers.

Raab said Corsa has been shipping its technology for nearly two years now, initially to customers building small environments for research purposes –  Corsa has worked with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network to develop and deploy tools and technologies to advance SDN – and then for large providers setting up SDN testbeds. Now it’s delivering its platform to production environments for use in metro networks and WANs.

“The common theme through all deployments is that people want to steer traffic at a granular level,” she said. “Traffic is such a dog’s breakfast. Traffic volumes are increasing, the mix of services is insane these days and the bit rates are variable.”

Network architects are looking to be proactive rather than reactive by employing advanced traffic management to accommodate on-demand services at a subscriber level, said Raab. “Large networks want to be able to isolate traffics into zones.” This not only addresses performance, but also  security. It also makes sense for DevOps, as more organizations look to do a few code drops a week, she said. The concept of zones has always been desired, but not possible until now. “That’s a big change. That’s ease of use manifesting itself.”

The evolution of SDN has been driven by capabilities of hardware platforms, said Raab. “These diverse requirements are demanding that the physical network adapt itself to those traffic patterns.” Just as data centre software virtualization is creating compute instances, Corsa does the same in the network by using software to create virtual routing instances in the hardware. “You get all of the performance of the hardware, and all of the flexibility of the software to spin up and down these instances.”

Easily programmable interfaces are also critical as ease of use is key to adoption, added Raab, particularly open technologies such as OpenFlow, which is the whole point of SDN.

Cliff Grossner, senior research director data centre, cloud and SDN at IHS, said the two distinct markets for SDN are enterprise networks / data centre market  and the carrier market, and each has distinct requirements. “Clearly, SDN is happening first in the data centre,” he said. “That market is already pushing past a US$1 billion.”

The carrier market for SDN is probably only worth a couple hundred million in U.S. dollars right now, said Grossner, as it is taking time for service providers to understand SDN. “The drive for automation is strong. If you look at leading North American carriers, they are making great strides to virtualize their networks.”

SDN is important foundation from which we will see network function virtualization roll out, he added, and carriers are looking at open source to move themselves forward. “We’re seeing a lot of barriers come down.”

Corsa in particular is well-positioned with its silicon, said Grossner, because it’s very high performance, and it can be customized in the field. He said the hardware aspects of SDN have been ignored to a degree as everyone is talking about the software. “The pendulum is going to swing back and people are going to want customized hardware especially as SDN is rolled out at the edge of network.”

By edge of network, Grossner means where the carrier meets the enterprise. “The work needed now is to integrate SDN operationally into the existing ecosystems.” Traditional networking vendors are looking to serve their existing client base, he said, and building a software stack and professional services. “For many customers that’s going to work very well.”

The other camp will be an open source stack, and it will be quite large. “That stack is going to be the strongest place for Corsa to play.”

Grossner said among all of the talk about software making networking more flexible, he said it’s important not to forget about innovation in hardware. “There’s still room for that in the marketplace. Hardware has a role to play too.”

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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