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New HP SDN portfolio: Controller, switches and network apps

A new HP OpenFlow controller with northbound APIs and production-ready network applications boosts HP's software defined networking strategy.

HP Networking has unveiled a full-stack software defined networking portfolio with a home-grown OpenFlow controller and northbound application programming interfaces. The release means mainstream SDN adoption is a lot closer than many industry pundits predicted.

In spite of what some vendors say, [SDN] is not a science project.

Joe Skorupa,
vice president and distinguished analyst, Gartner Inc.

The SDN news from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) included an expanded number of switches that support OpenFlow -- from 16 to 25 -- and the introduction of an OpenFlow controller. The controller features a set of RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable developers to write network applications that run on top of an SDN network.

Coupled with the announcement, HP detailed three applications that have been deployed in production networks running over those APIs. They include a network virtualization application that the company is using in its own public cloud offering, a distributed intrusion-detection system deployed by HBO, and a distributed load balancing application developed and deployed by the CERN institute in Switzerland.

"[This announcement is] a clear demonstration that -- in spite of what some vendors say -- [SDN] is not a science project," said Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc. "There are those who are saying: 'This is an immature technology. Someday it will work and one of these days you will be able to buy it. But until then … buy our proprietary solution today.' The fact that they have this in production networks is another indication that this stuff isn't five years out."

The HP SDN solution: Controllers, switches, APIs and applications

HP was one of the first to add OpenFlow-friendly switching, but with this new release, the company expanded the line from 16 to 25, adding the HP 3800 switch line to an OpenFlow roster that already included the 8200, 5400 and 3500 series switches. HP Senior Vice President Saar Gillai said that HP will expand OpenFlow support to its entire switching portfolio by the end of this year.

The HP Virtual Application Networks SDN Controller will ship both as pure software and as an integrated appliance based on HP Proliant server hardware. The OpenFlow controller is based on HP intellectual property, although some elements of open source code are present, Gillai said.

The controller's northbound APIs, based on the REpresentational State Transfer (REST) architecture, are where the HP SDN solution offers true differentiation.

"The [SDN] application layer is where the customer can apply business logic to their network," said Bethany Mayer, HP's senior vice president and general manager of networking. "The controller is great because it provides that single point of control to modify the forwarding path in the switches, but it's an enabler for customers to build the applications they need specific to the business problems they are trying to solve."

Early HP SDN applications

The three network services applications that HP debuted with its SDN announcement offered further differentiation from current commercial options on the market today. The network virtualization application that HP is running in its own cloud services data centers is similar in principal to network virtualization offerings that companies like Nicira Networks (recently acquired by VMware), Big Switch Networks and Midokura have demonstrated. It enables cloud network automation, multi-tenancy and public-private cloud integration via applications built on the HP OpenFlow controller.

In describing the importance of the distributed load balancing application that the Swiss research institute CERN had built and HBO's distributed intrusion-detection application, Gillai said, "Historically, whenever you want to do anything that requires more sophistication in terms of looking at packets and looking at what people are doing on your network, you had to develop dedicated hardware.

"This [SDN security application] is protecting you by looking at your DNS queries and making sure you don't go to any nefarious URLs. As the user makes various DNS requests -- instead of having an appliance in there looking at these -- the switches can intercept them and send them over to the controller. [The controller] can run them by the [HP TippingPoint IDS] database to make sure [the URL] is not nefarious. You're doing this without adding any new hardware."

HP SDN: More than a data center solution

When it comes to solving problems for enterprises, the SDN community has been focused on data centers. While this makes sense due to the challenges presented by server virtualization and cloud networking, it's too narrow a scope, argues Gartner's Skorupa. HP Networking gets that.

"The real network provisioning problems are not just in the data center," Skorupa said. "Adds, moves and changes are a big issue [in the campus]. Being able to ensure you have the right policies from the consumer port all the way to [the server] is a much more comprehensive view. This is clearly where HP is demonstrating leadership."

The HP SDN solution "is end-to-end, not just a data center solution," HP's Mayer said. "It goes from the data center to the campus and branch, and even across the wide area network if you need that."

Expect more networking vendors to follow HP's lead

Other networking vendors could emulate the HP SDN approach, according to Bob Laliberte, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. Specifically, most networking vendors are probably developing homegrown OpenFlow controllers. "I did some qualitative research interviews with end users at the beginning of this year. One thing that was clear is that organizations are looking for their network provider to come with them with solutions," he said.

Networking pros want vendors like HP to come to them with a total solution, not just OpenFlow support on switches. "Why do so many large enterprises buy from these large networking vendors? A lot of it is the support. If you're running a mission-critical enterprise data center, you need it to work well and be reliable. And if it isn't, you need that [vendor] support to come in and make it work. It's not like they're buying gear off the shelf. They're strategically partnering with a [vendor] to help their network, whether it's Cisco or HP. It's hard to manage multiple different vendors. People start pointing fingers," Laliberte said.

Network vendors also want the security of owning the entire SDN stack, Gartner's Skorupa said. "If you're a company the size of HP, can you afford to be dependent upon a startup?" he said. "Can you build the future of your network offering on a company that could be bought? Do you want to get in a bidding war for Big Switch [Networks]? HP can build a controller for less than the $1.26 billion VMware paid for Nicira. Even though [a controller] is just middleware, it is critical middleware."

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

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