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Carriers bet big on open SDN

AT&T and other carriers tell attendees at the Open Networking Summit they're committed to moving to open SDN. Google unveils Jupiter SDN platform at ONS.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Communication service providers believe open source technology will play an important role in software-defined networking. But how the freely distributed tools will change their relationship with traditional vendors is unclear.

Service providers are confident that open SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) will become the foundations of their networks. "When it comes to SDN and NFV, we are all in," Andre Fuetsch, head of IT at AT&T, said this week during a keynote panel discussion at the Open Networking Summit (ONS) in Silicon Valley. The panel also included executives from SK Telecom and NTT Communications.

Carriers believe SDN will eventually reduce costs and create networks that can be reconfigured faster to improve or launch new services for business customers. Service providers are testing a variety of SDN-related open technology, including OpenFlow, OpenStack and the Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV).

They are also testing whether open source alternatives could replace the intelligence in proprietary switches from network vendors. Carriers that can run the software on commodity x86 hardware powered by an SDN operating system could have more bargaining power in negotiating deals with vendors like Cisco, Juniper Networks and Ericsson.

A place for networking vendors

Carriers do not expect open source technology to free them from vendors.  However, companies building businesses around open source are just as likely to try to tie customers to their own implementations just as networking vendors do. Open source seldom meets all users' needs, so SDN deployments are likely to include proprietary technology.

"We want to avoid vendor lock in, but right now, it's not all that clear this will be the case," said Kang-Won Lee, head of research and development for Korean telecommunications company SK Telecom.

Traditional networking vendors have released SDN platforms.  But because the market is young, AT&T is willing to talk to startups and test the scalability of their products, Fuetsch said. "We're really opening up to disruptors."

AT&T expects to have more than 75% of its network controlled by software within five years. The company plans to push NFV down the stack to Layer 1, which will make the metro optical transport network more flexible and less dependent on expensive hardware, Fuetsch said.

When it comes to SDN and NFV, we are all in.
Andre FuetschHead of IT at AT&T

The company and its partners demonstrated at ONS a proof of concept project called the Central Office Re-architected as Data Center (CORD). CORD combines SDN, NFV and commodity infrastructure to create a central office with the flexibility of a data center used by cloud service providers.

SK Telecom is currently testing OpenDaylight controllers and ON.Lab's Open Network Operating System (ONOS), Lee said. The company is also testing the use of OpenFlow for connecting controllers to the gear driving SK Telecom's wireless backhaul.

NTT is researching whether ONOS and the O3 Orchestrator Suite (ODENOS) can be used as a network management platform, said Yukio Ito, senior vice president of service infrastructure at NTT. ODENOS is an open network orchestration framework for controlling multi-layer, multi-domain or multi-vendor networks.

The highest hurdle to implementing SDN is people, not technology, experts say. Carriers and enterprises adopting the architecture will have to retrain network operators to think like software developers and vice versa.

"We've done a lot to get our folks and culture in line," Fuetsch said. AT&T has an "extensive retraining program" that includes online coursework from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Google unveils Jupiter

In general, the largest cloud service providers, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, are ahead of carriers in deploying SDN. Google, for example, says it has been using homegrown SDN for a decade.

At ONS, Google introduced Jupiter, the fifth generation of its SDN technology. In addition, the company said it is making its network infrastructure available to external developers through the Google Cloud Platform.

Google provided general details about the Jupiter switch fabric, which can move data at a rate of 1 petabit per second. Google's network is divided into two equal parts, and Jupiter moves data between the segments. One petabit per second is fast enough to deliver all the content in the Library of Congress in a tenth of a second, according to Google.

Google's datacenter design uses a centralized software control stack to make thousands of small and inexpensive switches act as one large fabric. The stack also manages the fabric.

Google builds the networking software and hardware using silicon from chipmakers. The company also relies more on custom protocols tailored to its data center.

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