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CIO Review >> Magazine >> August - 2013 issue

SDN and OpenFlow: Networking Industry's Response to the Transition


Sunnyvale based NoviFlow's Switch solutions implement Software Defined Networks utilizing OpenFlow protocols and APIs. The company has received $39 million through several rounds of funding.

By bringing together Virtualization, SDN (Software Defined Networking) and NFV (Network Function Virtualization) the big new trend is the Software Defined Data Center. The proliferation of data intensive applications and devices, intensive multimedia usage, and cloud computing have placed huge demands on today's data networks. On the compute and storage fronts, virtualization has significantly reduced costs and provides the technological and economic basis for cloud computing. Unfortunately, current network topologies and management tools have made data center networks difficult to expand, hard to manage and expensive to operate. Worse still, network switches and other high performance network devices have been denied the benefits of virtualization.

SDN brings virtualization to the network fabric itself, making it possible to optimize networks on the fly and quickly respond to changes in network usage. By implementing a centralized controller function, SDN provides real-time interaction between the network and the applications that use it, making possible both application aware networks and network aware applications.

When combined with NFV, SDN turns network assets including all those expensive middle-boxes into on-demand resources that can be dynamically provisioned and managed in the same way as compute and storage, creating the Software Defined Data Center.

Transforming Data Center Industry

In essence the major battle is going to be a fundamental cultural shift in the entire data center industry. We are currently going through the same revolution as happened in the computer and telecommunications worlds, where the combination of Moore's law and the scale of usage changed those industries from being box focused to being software focused.

Cloud computing, the proliferation of connected devices, mobility and virtualization have radically changed the basic requirements of data centers. Network architectures can no longer be static or be optimized for specific traffic patterns; rather flexibility and the ability to rapidly accommodate changes in usage have become key. SDN and OpenFlow are the industry's response to those changes. They are truly disruptive and transform the decentralized organizational basis of IP networking by creating a central entity that has a unified overview of the network. The entire approach taken to deploy, provision and manage network functions as switching, load balancing, security, label switching changes from a purely distributed model to one where the logic for each of these functions is centrally managed, and can be linked directly to the applications that use these network services. Better still, the packet and flow processing part of these functions can be distributed to OpenFlow switches directly at the access points, significantly improving scalability and reducing latency.

Data Center managers will be able to coordinate not only which network resources applications can utilize, but also how these resources can be utilized and exposed to both internal and external customers. We see a real opportunity for SDN to support the deployment of NFV, in essence turning network middle-box functions into services that Cloud providers can expose to their customers via standard e-commerce interfaces, and then be monetized exactly in the same way as is currently done with compute and storage resources.

The Anatomy of Transition

No disruptive change happens easily or quickly. Entire supply chains have to move in concert to bring about change, often while the incumbent suppliers do their best to resist the change. New solutions need to be built that will deliver value to customers, and building these relationships, channels and partner ecosystems takes time. The key is to focus on solutions that solve specific problems that data centres have now. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the situation with SDN is actually somewhat different than most recent paradigm shifts in that it is not technology driven, but rather a response to the pressures on current networks created by the sudden rise of virtualization, device mobility and cloud computing.

Many companies have started to experiment with SDN and OpenFlow, but they do not know where to go with it next, or how best to begin deployment in their networks. NoviFlow believes that the best way forward is to work with experienced SDN players that can offer end-to-end solutions addressing specific network needs. That way, a company's data centre organization can build competency gradually and implement new SDN based services as overlays on existing networks, gradually replacing older and less efficient systems in an orderly and non-disruptive fashion.
Entrepreneurs developing SDN/OpenFlow solutions may find it very challenging to convince investors to finance emerging companies in this context of uncertainty and change with regards to future network architectures. This is especially so for companies developing products that are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to come into direct competition with well entrenched incumbents. As always, entrepreneurs have to persevere and be patient. Funds may take time and efforts to obtain, but the need for new architectures, solutions and products are really there, ready to burst onto main stage!