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IBM partners with NEC for OpenFlow switch, software-defined networking

IBM launched a new OpenFlow switch as part of a software-defined networking partnership with OpenFlow pioneer NEC, making IBM a player in data center networking.

IBM announced a new OpenFlow switch that it is co-marketing with NEC’s OpenFlow controller. The combined products represent the first end-to-end software-defined networking solution from a leading North American IT vendor and could establish IBM  as a major competitor to Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks and other vendors in the hotly contested data center networking market.

To date, OpenFlow and software-defined networking have been the provenance of startups and smaller vendors like NEC, which released its ProgrammableFlow OpenFlow products last summer. The major networking vendors have dabbled in OpenFlow, making it available on some select switches, but none have stepped forward and embraced the technology fully. While IBM is not a dominant networking vendor, but it is one of the largest IT vendors in the world and has a long networking history.

“With the brand and marketing of IBM and NEC, it’s going to make customers take a second look at OpenFlow and say, ‘Hey if IBM is behind this, then I can almost take the leap.’ You know IBM isn’t going to leave you stranded,” said Lucinda Borovick, program vice president for enterprise and data center networks at IDC.

The IBM/NEC solution consists of NEC’s ProgrammableFlow controller and IBM’s 1.28 Tbps RackSwitch G8264 top-of-rack switch. The switch features 48 SFP/SFP+ 10 GbE ports and four QSFP 40 GbE ports that can be split out to an additional 16 10 GbE ports. It supports OpenFlow 1.0.0 and it can handle a maximum of 97,000 flow entries.

Theoretically an enterprise can build an entire data center network with IBM’s OpenFlow switches and NEC’s controllers.

“With OpenFlow you don’t need core and aggregation equipment anymore,” said Jon Oltsik, principal analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. “You can create a fabric out of access switches.”

With OpenFlow switches will hype turn into reality?

Network engineers remain intrigued by OpenFlow and software-defined networking, but the technology is still emerging from its “science project” status.

OpenFlow is an open source protocol that allows enterprises to transform their networks from a distributed system where switches and routers make individual forwarding decisions to a centrally controlled system where an OpenFlow controller makes forwarding decisions.

OpenFlow controllers can also host applications that make networks more programmable. By using the centralized view of the network, developers can write applications that replace  functionality on advanced switches and routers or specialized network appliances like firewalls and load balancers.

Enterprises can also use the OpenFlow controller to make rapid configuration changes to their networks and to provision and dedicate network resources quickly for specific applications and services. This is especially important as enterprises consolidate into larger data centers and start to build private and hyrbid clouds.

IBM’s OpenFlow switch intrigues engineers, but not for rip and replace

Selerity, a provider of low-latency, real-time financial data to financial services companies, has been trialing the IBM/NEC OpenFlow network, according to Andrew Brook, Selerity’s CTO. His company uses proprietary algorithms to extract financial information from unstructured data, such as press releases, and send that data to its clients via a dedicated networks collocated with trading venues in Chicago, New Jersey and Frankfurt.

“Competition in this space is measured at the sub-microsecond level. Our clients are making trading decisions on a scale of 1 to 10 microseconds after getting data delivered by us.”

What's more, Selerity’s customers don’t receive uniform sets of data. Based on the services they pay for, Selerity customers are entitled to receive certain subsets of the data. The best way to meet these dual requirements is by multicasting over a low-latency switch. But in a multicast environment , Selerity struggles to send selective data sets to customers in real time. The programmability and rapid configurability of an OpenFlow network offers some promising solutions to this problem. Brook has determined that the IBM OpenFlow switches and the NEC controllers enable low-latency and real-time policy-driven content distribution.

“I don’t want to send that data out in separately addressed datagrams because it has to be sequenced and someone gets it first and someone gets it last,” he said. “I want to send it out as multicast, but what I want to change is which of the outgoing switch ports are going to participate in a particular multicast.”

Engineers can direct the forwarding on traditional switches but not in real time.

“There are some things we can do with OpenFlow to change the rules implemented on the switches in close to real time and get very nice, deterministic behavior by the switch. Right now, we are looking to do that functionality in the controller, but the speed at which we can do that is an open question. For what we’re doing today it’s acceptable.”

Brook is still evaluating IBM’s OpenFlow switch and NEC’s controller and if he adopts them, it won’t be a wholesale replacement of his existing network.

“In the short-term, it would be us identifying specific applications,” he said. “For example the edge switch that sits between our content delivery network and our clients.”

Tervela Corp., a provider of distributed data fabric appliances for global trading, risk analysis and ecommerce, is also evaluating the technology. Tervela customers typically deploy the company’s products on their own local network; however, Tervela engineers often consult with customers on the best network configurations to support its technology.

Michael Matatia, director of Software Engineering for Tervela, said his engineers are trialing the IBM/NEC OpenFlow network because he anticipates that customers will start using OpenFlow as an alternative to their traditional Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks.

“As OpenFlow has more traction, I anticipate that our customers will have OpenFlow deployments,” he said. “We need to be up and ready with the technology so we can talk intelligently about the advantages of OpenFlow and when to use it.”

Despite IBM’s involvement, OpenFlow doubts remain

IBM's involvement in OpenFlow has its appeal, but some question whether OpenFlow will really change networking

An ecosystem of developers will need to emerge to offer enterprises that programmability. OpenFlow startup Big Switch Networks recently made its OpenFlow controller available as an open source project expressly to promote the growth of such a developer community. 

Selerity’s Brook is mindful of OpenFlow’s place on the adoption curve.

“It’s still not clear to me that pure OpenFlow allows them to do anything differently. Most of the things you can do with software-defined networking, there are other ways to do it. Cisco lets you do it [with FabricPath], Arista lets you do it. I haven’t been convinced that OpenFlow is the right way to solve this problem,” said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst of ZK Research.

Brook said his company has specific niche needs or “severe technical requirements” that require the adoption of emerging technologies like OpenFlow, but in other parts of his infrastructure he still prefers to use established industry standards.

“OpenFlow seems to have some mindshare and some motion behind it. We’ll have to watch and see how rapidly it gets adopted before we assess how much we deploy it. This particular solution that IBM and NEC have put forward is nice, because the actual switching devices from IBM, even if you ignore the OpenFlow capabilities, are very nice switches. I’m not too worried about making investments because even if OpenFlow doesn’t catch on, it’s still very capable switch,” he said.


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director or contact him on Twitter

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