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Software defined networking still in slow lane

OpenFlow cheap networking standard struggling for headway

Cheaper network hardware and more efficient networking software, promised by suppliers earlier this year through the development of a new management system, is still some way off.

At the NetEvents enterprise IT symposium in the Algarve this week, delegates heard about the lack of progress in delivering commercially available of software defined networking (SDN)-based products.

SDN aims to allow the users of network hardware to fully control their networks in the way they want without being blocked by the proprietary controls traditionally contained in the expensive "black boxes" sold by the networking hardware vendors.

The Open Network Foundation (ONF) promoted the concept of software defined networking (SDN) at a NetEvents conference in Germany at the beginning of this year.

At the time, the ONF said, "There are lots of networking protocols which make it very labour intensive to manage a network. There are too many "band aids" being used to keep a network working, and these band aids can actually cause many of the problems elsewhere in the network."

The ONF said SDN promised to efficiently automate network configuration, improve network performance and reduce total cost of ownership.

At the heart of the SDN movement, supported by the likes of Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo - which sit on the ONF board - is OpenFlow, a communications protocol that gives access to the forwarding plane of a network switch or router over the network.

These large service providers are keen on OpenFlow because they use thousands of expensive black boxes in their large data centres around the world. OpenFlow can also be used in smaller campus environments and in enterprise data centres controlling LANs and WANs.

OpenFlow allows the path of network packets through a network of switches to be determined by software running on a separate, basic and cheaper server. This separation of the control from the forwarding allows for more sophisticated traffic management than what is feasible using access control lists (ACLs) and routing protocols, bypassing some of the more expensive proprietary software sold with networking hardware.

But at the latest NetEvents conference delegates heard that the "SDN movement" was still at the "visibility" stage - as far as the networking suppliers speaking at the conference were concerned.

Analyst Gartner recently published a paper, Open Networking Foundation Formed - The Battle to Commoditise Network Hardware Begins. The report said, "If OpenFlow gains traction the core data centre market could see significant disruption, with dramatically falling equipment prices."

Gartner said that while OpenFlow was potentially good for data centres as a result of allowing them to use more basic or "dumber" cheaper switches, it wasn't very good for the suppliers.

At the Algarve conference Gartner analyst Ian Keene said, "SDN potentially allows users to deploy a basic server to control their switches in a multi-vendor switch environment, but vendors often have a variety of ways to lock their customers in - are they really going to let SDN rock the boat for their existing $20 billion a year switch market."

One of those vendors - HP - told delegates it was playing a leading role in SDN. Earlier this year it announced that 16 of its switch products would support SDN. Mike Banic, vice president of global marketing for networking at HP, said, "Last year there were already 10 million OpenFlow-enabled switch points using HP infrastructure - we are taking a leadership role."

But enterprises aren't exactly being encouraged to adopt the technology by most vendors, according to analysts, and for good reasons in some cases. They say the move to SDN will be led by the service providers first - the ones with the most to gain in terms of large operating savings because of the scale of their data centres.

Pim Bilderbeek, an analyst at theMETISfiles, said, "Google says it has moved from 30-40 percent utilisation of its network resources to almost 100 percent with the help of technologies like SDN, but for enterprises it may take a couple of years for SDN to come on their radar."

Bilderbeek said enterprises were currently "outsourcing stuff to the cloud, to companies like Google, so SDN for them was more like 'GDN'".

Keene said, "Perhaps it will be greenfield sites likely to move first as they won't have to modify kit already in their data centres."

Keene added that many enterprises wouldn't have the internal skills to write their own switch controller software anyway, and that those who wanted it would perhaps get someone else to do it as part of a wider managed service deal.


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