Software-defined networking was the key topic at last week’s Interop show. The topic not only dominated the keynote presentations but was also apparent in the vast majority of booths on the show floor.
The basic concept of SDN is to separate the control plane and the data planes of a network so that software can control network connections, potentially making things like network virtualization and direct application control of a network much easier. But SDN is being used in so many places that the term seems to be nearing irrelevance as so many network products suddenly get placed under an SDN moniker.
The prominence of SDN was notable in the keynotes. HP General Manager of Networking Bethany Mayer emphasized how the company’s new products enable a unified physical and virtual data center fabric, including a core router optimized to support data center virtualization and new switches. The company has already shipped 20 million OpenFlow ports. More interesting, Mayer said HP now has five SDN-based applications: supporting a virtual cloud network, sentinel security, load balancing, WAN bursting, and unified communications for Microsoft Lync.
She brought up a customer, Conrad Menezes, vice president of network and information security at Sears Holding, to talk about building an SDN network. He advised to keep it simple, don’t play the numbers game, do your own testing, and build to scale with long-term investment protection.
Juniper Networks’ EVP of Software Solutions Division Bob Muglia showed the company’s Junos V Contrail Controller, an open-standards controller for SDN networks. This is an overlay controller, which is meant to work with a new services platform and app engine as part of the company’s plans to split network into multiple planes. Muglia said 2012 was a year of SDN hype, but 2013 is a year of execution. SDN will demand business models transform to meet the increased importance of software and the coming evolution of networking, he said.
Cisco Senior Vice President & General Manager of Enterprise Networking Group Robert Soderbery used the SDN terminology least in this group, focusing instead of how “the Internet of Things” with mobile networks, pervasive sensors, and telemetry will lead to new categories of applications. He brought up NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving to demonstrate a basketball tracking app that could be used by the NBA.
Soderbery also talked about the companies’ Cisco ONE architecture, which shares the basic SDN concept of using a control plane to manage the network, in this case including existing Cisco hardware. He mentioned that MGM Resorts has created a mobile app that uses a guest’s location inside the hotel to provide directions to particular locations and special offers.
Another keynote included a panel focused on SDN. Moderator Eric Hanselman of 451 Research noted that while SDN is often seen as being a future technology, in reality a lot of the underpinnings of SDN are already here.
In this panel almost everyone agreed that SDN’s key improvements include automation and speed of provisioning. Martin Casado, chief architect for networking at VMware (and one of the founders of early SDN vendor Nicera), said the primary value of doing networking in software is automation. “You need to do business quicker,” He said, and speed and agility are key.
Rajiv Ramaswami, EVP and GM of infrastructure and networking group at Broadcom, said that every layer of the network is changing, leading to “flatter and faster networks,” with more “east/west” (application to application) connectivity.
Rajeev Nagar, a group program manager on the Windows Core Networking Team at Microsoft, said that in addition to traditional network vendors, applications are now becoming part of the network. He noted that some applications don’t need to know about the infrastructure, but some need to have tight interaction. For example, he explained that Microsoft Lync needs to know about latency in the network, while real-time gaming can really benefit from directly addressing the physical networking layers.
Another topic all the panelists seemed to agree on was that new silicon enhances SDN capabilities. Casado said the supply chain is changing with customers now talking directly to silicon providers. “A lot of SDN is about who the new voices are and how they influence the SDN decision,” he said. Indeed, most of the network processing vendors were showing SDN directions at the show, including Broadcom, Cavium, and Freescale.
All of this will change the role of network administrators and Ramaswami discussed how SDN is leading to the blurring of roles between network and server administrators. Nagar said Microsoft has “deployed what you could call SDN at scale.” Administrators still need deep visibility into the network, he said, and the capability to specify constraints and make changes, even as the system remains relatively autonomic.
Of course, SDN was all over the show floor as well. Enterasys was promoting its “one fabric” approach, which it said has been pushing the idea of a flow-based architecture since the mid-90s. The company emphasized that fabric for control and management, a unified wire and wireless network, and its CoreFlow silicon.
But the company did recently open up new APIs to integrate with third parties. This is a “northbound API,” meaning it works with applications as opposed to hardware-based APIs (such as Open Flow).
And it didn’t end there. Ixia, which is probably best known for layer 2 and 3 testing gear, is now pushing higher levels of testing for virtual networking. Arista showed off its new high-speed end networking switch, the 7500E, under a banner that read “software-defined cloud networking.” F5 Networks, which has been known for its load balancing and traffic management appliances, seems to have rebranded the concept as “application-level SDN.”
In some way, all this re-definition of everything as “software-defined networking” makes sense, in that applications and software are controlling network flows. But in other ways, it just means that almost everything in network can be considered SDN, which seems to water down the concept.