Software-defined networking (SDN) is the undisputed hot topic in networking. The promise of SDN is to allow networking to be flexible, scalable, and programmable to support the world of cloud computing. Similar to server virtualization, SDN should allow networking resources to be deployed rapidly and treated as a pooled resource.
One of the prominent themes of proponents of SDN is that networking lacks innovation, is broken and therefore needs a revolution. Today, a long list of vendors (18!) including the existing networking players, some of the SDN startups, and operating system vendors, are announcing the OpenDaylight Project. This open source framework brings a lot of money, engineers and code into the community. The initiative is an interesting collaboration amongst competitors. With the first instantiation of code expected in 3Q13. The SDN marketplace is, however, likely to remain fragmented with a wide variety of solutions that are not necessarily complimentary for a couple of years.
The framework for OpenDaylight includes three layers of software (see diagram):
- A Controller platform that allows for the creation of a programmatic control plane,
- Northbound interfaces that are APIs for network applications and orchestration,
- Southbound interfaces that control the physical components and work across the complex mess of networking protocols.
Initial projects are expected include an open controller, a virtual overlay network, protocol plug-ins, and switch device enhancements. While an impressive list of software will be moved into open source, how the motley array of competing code bases will eventually become an SDN platform that will be of use to a developer ecosystem remains unclear. A growing number of participants (including Cisco, IBM, NEC and Nuage) require the use of a proprietary virtual switch as a control point for SDN. Open vSwitch is an open source solution that supports multiple hypervisors, but some believe that Nicira, which was acquired by VMware, controls the code. The controller is another piece of code that will likely be contentious; just about every vendor involved has its own code and is another point of control for new networks.
If the competitive challenges can be overcome, a lot of good can come from the collaboration. While it is useful for SDN to help overcome the manual operations of the networking physical world, the real opportunity for this initiative is the creation of a broadly adopted platform for a new class of networking applications. At a recent Big Data event, Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners pointed out that the biggest winner in Linux was not RedHat ($9B market cap), but Google ($250B market cap), showing that the application is often more valuable than the platform. In the same way, there is limited value in the controller layer of SDN and unlimited opportunity in the creation of a robust ecosystem that can drive the next generation of networking innovation at the application layer.
UPDATE: Breaking Analysis video discussing OpenDaylight and how it relates to the ONF and OpenStack.
Action Item: Early deployments of SDN are in service providers and other environments that have high-growth, large-scale networks. The networking industry has been moving too slowly to meet the requirements of these hyperscale environments. Companies that have immediate need for the benefits of SDN can’t wait for standards or open source initiatives to deliver. In the vast majority of enterprise customers, CIOs should be educating themselves and considering the organizational impact of SDN as the “layer 8 and 9” challenges typically take longer to sort out than the technical ones. The networking community should keep a close eye on the OpenDaylight project to be sure that it strives to deliver innovation rather than creating a roadblock to startups that seek to deliver value that disrupts the existing networking value chain.
Footnotes: Founding members of the OpenDaylight Project listed in the April 8, 2013 press release are: Arista Networks, Big Switch Networks, Brocade, Cisco, Citrix, Dell, Ericsson, Fujitsu, HP, IBM, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, NEC, Nuage Networks (an Alcatel Lucent venture), PLUMgrid, Red Hat and VMware. Find more at OpenDaylight.org.