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With open networking, engineers could slash network spending

Open Networking User Group members say programmable, software-based networks will let them save dramatically on network opex and capex. Instead of furthering the network device glut, they’ll move to commodity servers and virtual network services.

Network managers from a group of supersized enterprises say they will dramatically slash spending on networking technology and management as they move toward software-based, open networking.

These network pros are members of the Open Networking User Group (ONUG) board of directors, which released a white paper last week outlining how users will abandon closed and proprietary network devices in favor of commodity servers that run virtualized services.

The 14-member ONUG board represents a wide range of large and influential enterprises, including Gap Inc., JP Morgan Chase, Cigna, FedEx, Fidelity Investments, Pfizer, UBS, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse and Symantec.

Even in large enterprises, open and programmable networking is still not in wide use, but that’s set to change. In the larger ONUG community, 63% of IT users said their networks are "not open at all," while another 26% said their networks are "somewhat" or "a little" open today. Yet, a survey taken of ONUG members attending the organization’s meeting this past spring showed that open networking deployments had grown by 11% since last fall's meeting.

How open networking will usher in capex and opex savings

Open networking means many things to many people, but basically ONUG sees it as the ability to abstract software from network devices so IT organizations can provision and centrally manage virtualized appliances and services with flexibility.

The abstraction of the network control plane is a central part of this picture. With centralized control and virtualized appliances, the network would be less expensive to deploy and manage than in years past.

From an OpEx perspective, networking "hasn’t changed since 1996," said ONUG co-founder Nick Lippis. From firewalls and load balancers to switches, the number of networking appliances has exploded, yet in a closed, hardware-oriented network, each element requires its own configuration and management with distinct policy and QoS, he explained. Network managers must consistently hire more staff to keep up with the growth, which is an expensive pattern to maintain. Authors of ONUG’s report claim that network engineers spend 80% of their time on manual configuration.

By implementing open networking, network managers may see a 15% to 30% relief in OpEx spending in the short term, according to ONUG.  Meanwhile, they could save as much as 70% in capital spending on hardware, Lippis said. Network appliances are sold at margins of 65% to 75%, Lippis said. Once you separate software from network hardware, devices become much less expensive, he explained.

While many have predicted that less expensive white-box switches would be the driver behind reduced network spending, Lippis says that won’t have quite the same impact as virtualized network services.

 "My sense is that the model where you buy a bare-metal switch and load up an OS and then do the configuration -- that’s kind of scary for a lot of enterprises. The Facebooks and the Googles and the hyper-scales have the ability to do that," said Lippis. "In the typical enterprise, white boxes are of interest from a top-of-rack point of view, or maybe in the branch office as well."

Yet proprietary switching will become less expensive as vendors turn to merchant silicon.

"You can have merchant ASICs and then have proprietary OS on top," added Lippis.

A love affair with DevOps, and a network applications ecosystem

Network flexibility and automation has prompted a mad dash to develop DevOps and innovative network management or orchestration tools, said Lippis. Cisco’s DevNet, which provides 100 APIs that let developers create network management apps, is an example of this.

"There are now platforms where you can start writing to the network. Those applications can either be for automating management, or they can be for SAP QoS, for example. The [applications] communicate to a controller and the controller interacts with policy and distributes that configuration to the network," Lippis explained.

A new WAN and network overlay interoperability

ONUG’s white paper also outlined network trends they’ll expect to see as open networking takes hold, including a more flexible and virtualized Wide Area Network (WAN), along with interoperability in virtual network overlays.

In the WAN, ONUG members expect to see automated virtual network provisioning and new paths to automated WAN aggregation. Specifically, users want to slice up the WAN "based upon applications or user groups" and manage all of this with a centralized controller, Lippis said.

Meanwhile, in the data center, ONUG wants interoperability in network overlay tunnels – as well as a move away from a multicast use of VXLAN.

"When you establish VXLAN tunnels you send a message out to network --it's not from one device to another, but rather it goes to multiple devices, so you can discover where an end point might be. This adds more traffic to z data center and it makes it harder to manage an overlay," Lippis said.

While both Cisco and VMware have unicast methods, there is no interoperability between them. ONUG isn't promoting its own interoperability standard, but it is requesting that vendors work to address this deficit.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

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Will SDN enable you to cut your network spending?