Software-defined networking, a set of technologies to help networks better adapt to user needs with less manual effort, may at last be getting the common foundation it has needed for interoperability and efficient development.
Most of the major vendors working on SDN have joined in on OpenDaylight, a project being announced on Monday that will develop an open-source SDN framework. The vendors, which include Cisco Systems, VMware, Juniper Networks and Ericsson, will contribute software and engineers to the effort, according to Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, which is hosting the project.
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With OpenDaylight, the networking industry will take the same approach to developing its next generation of technology as the big-data sector did with Hadoop or Web browsers with WebKit, Zemlin said. It will be a vendor-neutral group that no single member can dominate and in which "the best code can win," he said. By pooling code and engineering effort to build core infrastructure software, vendors will free up their own research and development resources to build value-added products on top of it.
On an OpenDaylight conference call with media on Friday, Cisco committed itself to this model.
"Cisco plans to use OpenDaylight as the foundation of several product offerings and include aspects that might be specific to Cisco," said Colin Kincaid, the company's vice president of product management, marketing and architecture.
OpenDaylight launches with a group of backers that includes most of the major makers of network infrastructure. Cisco, Brocade, Ericsson, Citrix, Microsoft and SDN specialist Big Switch Networks make up the top-level Platinum group of sponsors. Other members include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Intel, NEC, Arista Networks, and Alcatel-Lucent's just-launched internal SDN startup, Nuage Networks.
SDN is designed to turn networks into programmable platforms instead of collections of boxes that have to be managed on their own. While virtualized servers and storage can be reconfigured and moved around quickly from a central management point, networks still require many manual changes.
SDN emerged through development of the OpenFlow protocol and the formation of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) in 2011 to standardize the technology. But since then, networking vendors have developed other SDN tools on their own, saying OpenFlow solves only some parts of the problem. OpenDaylight is a development body and will be complementary to ONF, which is a standards body, according to Zemlin. The two groups have had discussions, he said.
Software developed under OpenDaylight will be distributed under the Eclipse Public License. Despite the Linux Foundation's involvement, development will not be limited to Linux-based software.
OpenDaylight will develop a collection of technologies, including a controller, the component that provides centralized control of network equipment in an SDN. Its controller will include interfaces to network-aware applications such as cloud management tools, as well as to switches and other hardware within the network. The project will also create applications, virtual overlay network software, and other components, Zemlin said.
Building a common foundation is crucial to SDN's success, according to analyst Mike Spanbauer of Current Analysis. Without it, enterprises and service providers are limited in how much they can simplify management across their networks, which in most cases contain equipment from more than one vendor, he said. In addition, developers of third-party software have to work with each networking vendor separately, which raises their costs and keeps some developers out, Spanbauer said.
For example, SDN could allow an application accelerator to make changes to the switches in a network to speed up performance, Spanbauer said. But today, that couldn't happen unless the accelerator and switch were made by the same vendor or there was software written specifically to work between those products, he said. A cross-vendor SDN platform could open up the field to more outside developers.
Spanbauer believes the participating vendors are committed to OpenDaylight. The membership requirements seem to guarantee that: In addition to financial contributions, Platinum members have to contribute the equivalent of 10 full-time engineers to the project, and Gold members have to contribute three engineers.
"Everybody would like to see something like this work," Spanbauer said. "The question is, how much of the innovation will they be contributing back to the open-source component versus keeping to themselves as secret sauce?"
Another unanswered question is how IT managers charged with buying network gear, some of whom are still trying to understand SDN, will get their heads around yet another acronym, he said: "It may dilute the energy some."