When HP announced OpenFlow support across 16 switches earlier this month, it was confusing to some. After all, there is no mass market demand for OpenFlow and little apparent use for it in a typical enterprise. But HP has a larger vision – one of a fully abstracted network, and a move away from the 'tyranny of CLI.'
While companies like Nicira, BigSwitch and Juniper generally come to mind when it comes to OpenFlow, HP has its own history with the technology. Earliest OpenFlow experiments performed at Stanford University featured HP involvement. HP is also a notable member of the Open Networking Foundation.
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Despite its history, it still may seem strange that HP would jump on board with commercialized OpenFlow at this point. OpenFlow today is a niche protocol leveraged to solve unique challenges in specialized environments such as research academia. While there's need for OpenFlow's detailed and flexible flow management in the cloud and in service provider networks, that's not really the case in the enterprise network where HP is focused. In fact, the majority of network engineers are merely curious about OpenFlow, but few are making deployment plans.
HP OpenFlow vision: Moving beyond the 'tyranny of CLI'
I believe the word “vision” best explains why HP has committed itself to OpenFlow. HP envisions a fully abstracted network. By that, I mean network engineers will stop interacting directly with individual switches, routers and firewalls, and start managing the network as a holistic system. In early February, HP Networking CTO, Saar Gillai said that network management needs to evolve beyond the ‘tyranny of the CLI.’ Indeed, a network that’s managed device by device is a tyranny of sorts, and most software for enterprise network management is, in fact, device-centric. Certainly that's the case for SNMP-driven network management. Even packages like EMC’s Ionix rely in part on automated interaction with device CLIs.
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For HP, OpenFlow is a means whereby engineers can build a network that acts and is managed as a single entity. To help make the connection, Charles Clark, distinguished technologist at HP Networking, offered examples of how certain tasks will be accomplished in an OpenFlow-enabled network. These included:
- Dynamically provisioning end-to-end, secured and audited network access for a user based on their credentials.
- Defining end-to-end performance characteristics of a traffic flow to guarantee a pre-defined level of service as the flow traverses the network.
What network management will look like with HP OpenFlow
For me, what's even more interesting is the management tool that will someday be used to provision HP's OpenFlow-enabled network. There will be no CLI interaction, nor will there even be a requirement to program each device individually. Instead, HP’s prototype software tool will provide a GUI that the engineer interacts with, defining what needs to happen at a high level, while still offering the granularity of secure user contexts and flow characteristics, such as MAC and IP addresses. Once instructed, the software will provide instructions to an OpenFlow controller, which in turn will send the necessary OpenFlow commands to all of the networking devices that need to be programmed to complete the task.
The point to take away is that HP is not merely saying “me too” when it comes to OpenFlow. What’s really going on is a declaration of war. I believe that HP wants to offer a functional software-defined network to the enterprise before any of the other market leaders do. As Cisco seems hardly excited about OpenFlow and SDN, I interpret HP’s announcement as Cisco sitting right in their cross hairs once again.