SDN is not OpenFlow, but OpenFlow is a real disruption

If 2012 was the year that software-defined networking sold out, then 2013 should be the year that the big players in the industry recognize that their efforts to neutralize the threat of OpenFlow and the coming commoditization of networking hardware are doomed to failure. I’m sure that many people will declare me wrong, but the promise of SDN and the promise of OpenFlow are different.

Software-defined networking doesn’t require OpenFlow. And it will still make a network programmable and responsive in ways that both scaled-out web-services providers and enterprise customers dealing with virtualization will appreciate. But it won’t necessarily affect the underlying networking hardware in the same way OpenFlow can. However, OpenFlow — the protocol that aims to separate the intelligence required to route a packet from the act of moving a packet– can commoditize the switches and routers. And it will have a big impact on the networking vendors such as Cisco, Arista and Juniper.

SDN is good for many things, but not everything.

Nick McKeown, one of the fathers of OpenFlow onstage at Structure.
Nick McKeown, one of the fathers of OpenFlow onstage at Structure.
Right now, that impact has been ignored because many of the benefits of software-defined networking can exist without using OpenFlow. Products from Nicira as well as upcoming offerings from Juniper, Cisco and many other SDN startups don’t depend on the lowest levels of the network. They offer programmability and better ways to manage scaled out and virtualized infrastructure without OpenFlow. And they offer these features in a way that’s far easier for enterprises and even cloud customers to consume. Few businesses have the resources to program and support entirely new networking code for new routers built on commodity hardware, and even fewer want to rip out their existing gear to buy a new OpenFlow-based network.

But it’s early: the promise of real, commodity-based networking gear will not dissipate. Stu Bailey, the CTO of Infoblox (s BLOX) told me last week as his company was launching new software-based networking products that the emphasis on specialized chips and networking hardware is doomed. Both cloud and the enterprise networks are becoming increasingly complicated; not just because of virtualization and scale, but also because of the increasing number of devices at the edge. Smartphones are pressuring networks, but adding sensors and other connected devices as integral business equipment, will require some serious thinking about networking hardware and cost.

“How quickly will a large healthcare org realize that the network is not the collection of routers and switches, but is instead these things connected to the network?” asked Bailey. “And how they interact fundamentally and how they are secured is responsible for the business. With that awareness they need SDN economics and OpenFlow will hasten that.” Hence InfoBlox’s decision to focus on software — software that is OpenFlow compatible.

This revolution won’t come immediately, but it will come.

Others, such as Jim Theodoras, director of technical marketing at ADVA, an optical provider to data centers, have expressed similar thoughts. Theodora has also expressed frustration that so far the message of router and hardware commoditization has been ignored. But for the most part, the existing products on the market and their associated marketing and product managers have been good at loudly shouting down the camp of people who see OpenFlow as a legitimate threat to the hardware makers. And it’s not just marketing. There are many obstacles to deploying an OpenFlow-based networking infrastructure.

Lane Patterson Equinix Kenneth Duda Arista Networks Structure 2012
(L to R) Lane Patterson, CTO, Equinix; Kenneth Duda, Founder, CTO and SVP, Software Engineering, Arista Networks
(c)2012 Pinar Ozger [email protected]
People love pointing out Google’s OpenFlow-based data center communications network as an example of a successful OpenFlow-based implementation, but Google had to develop a lot of its own expertise to make that happen. In fact, Ken Duda, a co-founder and CTO at Arista, accused Google last June at our structure conference of bastardizing OpenFlow to the point where it wasn’t OpenFlow anymore. Duda is from Arista, one of the companies set to feel the pain of any router and switch commoditization, but he’s no marketing parrot.

One obstacle, other than just getting the gear to work, is that the current chips sold by merchant silicon providers aren’t ready to support the most recent and faster versions of OpenFlow. NoviFlow, a startup in Montreal, that just announced an OpenFlow compatible switch that processes information at 100 gigabits per second per second — a significant amount of capacity when we’re talking about the data center market — went with specialty networking processors. It couldn’t build such a high capacity OpenFlow switch with existing chips, so it used network processors from EZChip. It’s still using a specialty chip to make its boxes, much like Cisco (s csco) and Juniper (s jnpr) do.

OpenFlow creates a common networking platform, not lock-in

NoviFlow's 100 Gbps switch.
NoviFlow’s 100 Gbps switch.
However, by using OpenFlow, NoviFlow is anticipating a world when customers can buy a range of switches from different vendors and expect them to work because they are all OpenFlow compliant. And that is when the hardware prices will likely change. Just like x86 processors turned the server market into a battle over new features on a consistent platform, networking gear will soon be about a consistent platform where features matter and vendors can’t lock in their clients.

Marc LeClerc, NoviFlow’s VP of strategy and marketing is anticipating that day, explaining that NoviFlow has a high-end switch, but that it expects customers to also purchase lower-end gear that they will expect will work with the NoviFlow products. And when that day comes, the question is what kind of shakeout we’ll see in the networking world.

“When the world went over from mainframes to client-server it was a huge shift and plenty of companies that used to play in that market like Wang and DEC are no longer around anymore,” Bailey said.