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Dell and Object Management Group to launch an SDN standards body

Dell hopes SDN standards from the Object Management Group will ensure open and fair competition -- unlike those from other SDN standards bodies.

Dell is working with the Object Management Group to create a software-defined networking standards body, although it's questionable whether the industry can sustain another SDN standards group.

The Object Management Group (OMG) is an international nonprofit consortium best known among network engineers for developing high-level modeling standards, such as the Common Object Request Broker Architecture.

I would join OMG simply to be able to follow along and know what [the SDN standard] is before it arrives.

Bill Owens,
network engineer

The OMG would join an increasingly crowded group of standards bodies and consortiums that are wrangling SDN. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) governs OpenFlow, and it is exploring several SDN architectural issues. Meanwhile the Internet Research Task Force has a research group devoted to SDN that will provide input to other standards organizations, including the ONF, IEEE and the Internet Engineering Task Force. In the shadows, there is the Daylight project, a consortium of leading networking vendors that are collaborating to build an open source SDN controller.

Dell says at least 31 companies, including networking vendors, enterprises and service providers, are interested in working with the OMG on broad architectural SDN standards, particularly around programmatic interfaces, otherwise known as northbound APIs. "[These companies] want to make the API very transparent and easy so programmatic interfaces can work with SDN," said Sam Greenblatt, vice president and chief architect of the Dell Enterprise Solutions Group. "As we get more clarity [with SDN], we will absolutely attract developers because they can create applications regardless of whether [the network hardware] is Dell or anybody else."

It's hard to imagine what these 31 companies might be, considering that many key SDN players are rumored to have signed a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) when they joined one of the other consortiums. "There is another project, which I won't go into, where there is an NDA in place," Greenblatt said. "The NDA ... says that [these vendors] can't join a competing consortium. But if they're already in the OMG, they can work with us. We're working through a lot of interesting maneuvering in the market."

No one has confirmed which consortium is handcuffing companies, but many predict that it's the Daylight project, which reportedly involves IBM, HP, Cisco, Citrix, Big Switch Networks and NEC. HP and IBM are already members of OMG.

OMG: Where the little guy can participate in the SDN evolution?

Beyond the large vendors, OMG's SDN standards committee might be especially attractive to enterprise and research engineers who are frustrated with the ONF for a lack of transparency and its $30,000 membership fee. The OMG is also a membership-only organization, but members can join for less than $1,000.

"I would join OMG simply to be able to follow along and know what [the SDN standard] is before it arrives," said Bill Owens, a network engineer with a large education network. "I just can't justify the $30,000 for any organization, not just the ONF."

Owens doesn't necessarily want to have a say in how SDN standards are built; he just wants to be able to see the process so he can understand the rationale behind the choices a consortium makes. "We're not out there arguing for a particular thing to be implemented, but we are hoping to see what's coming and understand what we'll be dealing with next year and the year after," he said. The OMG is a strange choice for an SDN standards body, he added, but it makes sense if Dell is trying to provide a backdoor entry for companies that are tied down with Daylight.

Do we need standardization of programmatic SDN interfaces?

Whether northbound interfaces should be standardized is one of the most hotly debated topics in SDN.

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Programmatic interfaces by their very nature might need to stay proprietary for the time being. After all, it's difficult to create standards around an interface when the potential use cases for that interface are still not determined, said Eric Hanselman, research director at 451 Research. Yet the networking industry often relies on standardization to maintain interoperability and open competition. Without some standardization in place, networking pros and developers risk getting locked in to an approach that doesn't catch on.

"I'm not a programmer, but my understanding is that if you want to write to a northbound interface, you pick a controller and you write to it," said Bill Owens, a network engineer at a large education network. "There is no standardization, no rhyme or reason. You have interfaces in the form of plug-ins, so you can write in whatever language the controller is written in. Or you have RESTful Web services calls, although those don't always expose everything that is going on in a controller. Or you have radical things like the stuff the Frenetic Project has done, where they create their own programming language that is effectively the northbound API of a controller. And then there is Cisco and their onePK architecture," he said. Many predict that Cisco's onePK will catch on quickly, but that could pose a challenge to openness. "That would really shut things down badly. People would write to onePK because that's what everyone runs. Then everybody else would have to write to that interface or be incompatible."

The ONF has studied northbound interfaces but has been reluctant to move forward with any standardization. Dell Enterprise Solutions Group's Greenblatt said that Dell went to OMG instead of the ONF "so that there is no splintering on what the concept of SDN is."

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

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