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OpenFlow controllers could change networking forever…or not

Big Switch says OpenFlow controllers and applications will let users order up networking ports on demand, but will networking vendors give in to software-defined networking?

I learned two things from a conversation with Big Switch Networks last week: 1). OpenFlow has the ability to spawn an entirely new ecosystem of vendors providing technology for on-demand network virtualization; and 2). because that ecosystem of vendors will all depend on each other to make any one piece of the picture work, it could all go down in flames. The outcome really depends on whether networking vendors will give in to software-defined networking.

Big Switch execs like to refer to OpenFlow as the “x86 instruction set for the network.” With OpenFlow, engineers can decouple control plane software from the underlying physical network components. Then with a centralized OpenFlow controller they can have a real-time, holistic view of the network and use that control plane software to define how network path flows are distributed to individual switches and routers. Then users are left to develop all sorts of applications to run on top of that control plane. That's where the fun begins.

Big Switch's application is a controller (currently in beta testing), which lets enterprise data center engineers dynamically create virtual network switches and virtual network segments on demand.

“Once there is the centralized view, you can see the entire network and say, 'give me some ports from here and some ports from there.’ So somebody logging in [can create an] 18-port switch [for their specific needs],” said Kyle Forster, BigSwitch co-founder.

With that technology, a company with 18,000 parallel-running applications in a cloud environment can place each in its own network tenant with separate sets of policy and security parameters. Then network provisioning should no longer slow down the process of creating and migrating virtual servers.

But here's the rub: The OpenFlow ecosystem, according to Forster, will consist of three types of vendors -- providers of switches, controllers and applications. The latter two categories cannot exist until OpenFlow-friendly switches are released.

So far, three switching vendors -- Juniper, IBM and NEC -- have announced they are working on OpenFlow-ready equipment. Cisco says it's on board for OpenFlow testing. But let's face it; networking vendors such as Cisco have made their name on proprietary software and features. How willing will they be to give in and suddenly begin selling dumb hardware?

BigSwitch is already working behind the scenes with most major vendors, according to Forster. Ultimately, he says, user demand for flexibility and on-demand networking will force their hand. When that happens, these vendors will either have to sell pre-validated OpenFlow-based systems or at least switches that support OpenFlow.

Twilight in the Valley of Nerds blogger Brad Casemore agrees that networking vendors will be pushed into OpenFlow due to two drivers: the move of SMBs and enterprises into the public cloud and the trend in cloud providers such as Google to create their own switching already based on software-defined networking. Here's what Casemore has to say:

“As SMBs and enterprises increasingly move applications to the cloud, where they can be delivered as services by operators such as Google and others of its ilk, two things happen: enterprise-oriented vendors potentially find themselves with a smaller market to serve, and the cloud-service providers begin to assert themselves in a number of ways, which includes setting the technology agenda for the industry.”

That might be the case, but as this all develops, how long will applications such as the Big Switch Controller remain in beta?

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