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Getting answers on HP OpenFlow and the HP 12500 data center switch

At Interop 2012 we uncovered the latest on the HP 12500 switch and learned what the HP OpenFlow strategy is really about.

LAS VEGAS -- At Interop 2012, I had two main questions about HP Networking: What's going on with the HP OpenFlow and software-defined networking strategy, and what is happening with the HP 12500 Series of data center chassis switches?

Fortunately, at the tail end of the show I had a chance to sit down with Mike Nielsen, HP's director of network solutions marketing, who was able to offer some hints. Here's what I learned.

Expect updates to the HP 12500 series early next year

You may have noticed that HP Networking has done very little with the HP 12500 Series data center chassis since it came along with the acquisition of 3Com more than two years ago. The most notable update HP has made to the platform is expansion of its Intelligent Resilient Framework (IRF). 

IRF is a switch virtualization technology that allows network engineers to virtualize the control plane of multiple HP 12500 switches. With it, you can manage multiple switches as a single device, eliminating the need for spanning tree protocol and lowering operational expenses. Last year, HP expanded the number of switches you can link together with IRF from two to four. It also made IRF available on some of its other switches. You can now link four 12500 switches together with IRF and link four top-of-rack HP switches together.

Other than that, we haven't seen much from HP on this platform. At last year's Interop, HP introduced its HP 10500 Series of campus LAN core chassis switches. And at this year's show, it introduced new modules for that platform. So what's going on with the HP 12500?

Nielsen acknowledged that HP has introduced limited updates to the HP 12500, partially due to its focus on refreshing the campus core with the 10500 switches. HP saw an opportunity to compete head-on with Cisco Systems, which has extended the life of its aging Catalyst 6500 line in the campus core with its new Supervisor 2T engine.

HP is now working on a refresh of the HP 12500 platform in the form of new line cards and modules that should expand the power of the existing chassis. Nielsen declined to offer specifics, but HP will most likely announce those updates early next year.

In the meantime, some HP customers must like what they're hearing under NDA from HP about the platform. DreamWorks Animation, a showcase customer, is in the middle of deploying an HP data-center network in its three primary data centers, with a core built on the 12500. Derek Chan, head of global technology operations for DreamWorks, joined Bethany Mayer, HP's senior vice president and general manager of HP Networking, during an Interop 2012 keynote to talk about this project.

Also, Nielsen pointed out that "the 12500 has a lot of legs. The vast majority of data centers have no more than 500 to 800 servers. We can scale [into the thousands]."

The HP OpenFlow and software-defined networking strategy: switches as controllers

During her keynote, Mayer also described HP's software-defined networking vision. The vision she articulated focused on HP's new Virtual Application Networks (VAN) technology, but there was no mention of HP OpenFlow.

VAN is basically a module for HP's network management system, Intelligent Management Center (IMC), which uses preconfigured templates to characterize the delivery requirements of an application and then configures the Layer 2-4 network infrastructure via APIs to suit those requirements. Furthermore, HP announced a partnership with application delivery networking vendor F5 Networks for similar template-based configuration of the network at Layer 4-7, based on F5's iApps framework.

HP and F5 are delivering a joint solution for automating application provisioning on networks from Layer 2-7. So far, the joint offering is validated for deploying Microsoft Exchange, server virtualization and disaster recovery.

This technology speeds up network operations in a highly virtualized data center by getting network engineers out of command line interface (CLI) and allowing them to set up networks for new applications and services quickly with templates. However, software-defined networking (SDN) is about far more than this. It's not just about manipulating the network at the management tier. It's also about abstracting the control plane in order to make the network more programmable, thus allowing enterprises to deploy network-based applications on top of an SDN controller.

That vision of SDN usually involves OpenFlow, a protocol that HP proudly announced support of on sixteen HP switch models back in February. Yet Mayer didn't mention that during her keynote. Nielsen acknowledged that VAN is just one part of HP's SDN strategy, but the rest of the HP OpenFlow and SDN strategy is still in the works. He pointed to IRF as one means of control plane abstraction and the support of OpenFlow on 16 OpenFlow switches as another example.

Today, the VAN module on IMC manages the network device by device through APIs. It's not exactly elegant, and it doesn't offer a lot of latitude in terms of network programmability. Nielsen envisions that IMC could eventually function as an application that manages the network through an SDN controller.

"Eventually we want the management plane to speak through a controller interface to the devices," Neilsen said. "The intention is to do it with OpenFlow, but we need to work harder with the industry to see where it wants to go. If you have APIs abstracted at the switch, you could use [IMC] to directly control the APIs, but that doesn't scale. We should be using a controller to push out the management."

And what will serve as that controller? Nielsen hinted that HP could make one of its own switches a controller. However, a single switch as a controller would represent a single point of failure. HP would work to prevent that with the IRF by clustering four switches together and operating them as a distributed controller. In this architecture, a network manager could define SDN flows, presumably via IMC, while deploying other network-based applications, like load balancing and network security, through the SDN controller.

"It's been done before," he said. "We've done this stuff already with the wireless LAN control plane."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director

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