Along with Yahoo, Verizon and 17 others, the companies formed a group dubbed the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting SDN as a way to customise networks and speed network innovation.
"In the past two decades, enormous innovation has taken place on top of the internet architecture," the group explained. "Email, e-commerce, search, social networks, cloud computing, and the web as we know it are all good examples. While networking technologies have also evolved in this time, the ONF believes that more rapid innovation is needed."
Toward that end, SDN allows innovation to happen more quickly on all kinds of networks through relatively simple software changes, the group says. Data centers, wide area telecommunication networks, wireless networks, enterprise and even in-home networks can thus be controlled more precisely to serve user needs, such as by allowing some routers to be powered down during off-peak periods as a way to reduce data centers' energy usage, it suggested.
"Software-Defined Networking will allow networks to evolve and improve more quickly than they can today," said Urs Hoelzle, ONF's president and chairman of the board as well as senior vice president of engineering at Google. "Over time, we expect SDN will help networks become both more secure and more reliable."
Broadcom, Brocade, Ciena, Cisco, Citrix, Dell, Ericsson, Force10, HP, IBM, Juniper Networks, Marvell, NEC, Netgear, NTT, Riverbed Technology and VMware are among the group's other members.
A six-year research collaboration between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley led to the SDN approach. The OpenFlow interface is one key component, focused on controlling how packets are forwarded through network switches. Also included in SDN are a set of global management interfaces upon which more advanced management tools can be built.
The ONF's first task will be adopting and leading ongoing development on the OpenFlow standard and freely licensing it to all member companies. Next, the group will begin defining global management interfaces.
"Industry-wide open application programming interface (API) efforts like ONF are promising for the next generation of network-based offerings," said Bruno Orth, senior vice president of network strategy and architecture at Deutsche Telekom. "SDN principles advance Deutsche Telekom's vision of 'connected life and work' and are expected to accelerate innovation for a seamless customer experience."
Potential implications of the ONF's approach include the ability to establish on-demand "express lanes" for time-sensitive voice and data traffic, as well as for companies like Verizon or AT&T to combine multiple fiber optic backbones temporarily to handle short-term peaks in traffic, as the New York Times has already pointed out.
For data centers, SDN could also make it easier to redirect traffic around problematic hardware.
Bottom line? By employing open standards, this new initiative could make far-flung networks easier to control, customize and innovate upon, and that's bound to benefit everyone.