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ONUG Great Debate: Hardware versus software

The big question at ONUG's fall Great Debate: 'Will software solve networking's biggest problems?' Software narrowly beat hardware in a post-smack down audience poll.

In a hardware versus software debate over which is better at solving the networking industry's biggest problems, conference attendees at the Open Networking User Group's (ONUG) fall 2015 conference in New York this week gave software a narrow win of 52%. Roughly 125 participants voted.

Two computer science experts took the stage at ONUG's semiannual Great Debate. Brighten Godfrey, assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argued that software presents the only hope for meeting the significant challenges of today's networks. Douglas Comer, distinguished professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., countered that software causes more problems than hardware.

From his pro-hardware stance, Comer said, "Do you remember the headlines last summer? They all said, 'Are we under a cyberterrorist attack? Is the world going to fall apart?' And a couple of days later -- guess what -- they ran the true story: 'Oh, no, it's not a cyberterrorist attack. Don't worry; it's just regular old software bugs.'"

Speaking up for software, Godfrey countered that humans have "even more bugs than software," saying that networks need automation to replace error-prone manual configurations.

Because modern networks have a lot of moving parts, those moving parts and systems need to be orchestrated, Godfrey continued.

"We've come up with processes that exist at the human level -- change management," he said. "The problem is that these processes operate at human timescales and might involve tens of, or even a hundred or more people involved in making changes to the network. We need to be able to automate that and turn those human processes into software."

But Comer pointed to a culture of constant software updates as another factor that threatens network health.

"Normal people believe, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" he said, quoting writer Douglas Adams. "Software engineers believe, 'If it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features.' It's always easy to add features to software, and that's the problem."

But software's ability to change is one of its greatest strengths, Godfrey said, adding that we need "evolvability" -- agile infrastructure that is capable of readily adapting to shifting network conditions. In considering hardware versus software, he said the real question is how to minimize the latter's role.

"What is going to be the boundary between software and hardware, and how little hardware can we get away with?" Godfrey asked.

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