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What do Star Trek and software-defined networking have in common?

How a new startup, which is the most open networking vendor I've seen to date, evokes comparisons between software-defined networking and Star Trek.

For decades, networks have been built on closed, proprietary infrastructure. It’s what’s allowed vendors to create unique features and differentiate themselves. Those features are what have enabled the networks to be as reliable, secure and resilient as they have been in the past. However, over the past couple of years it seems that “open” has become the new black when it comes to network infrastructure and every major vendor now has some degree of openness, although may not be 100% open (I’ll define later). Recently, though, I ran across a startup called Pica8 that is, by far, the most open networking vendor that I have seen to date.

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Before I get into the specifics of Pica8, let me define why open networking has become all the rage and what it actually means.

As I’ve said before, for decades, networks have been built on closed proprietary infrastructure that wasn’t overly flexible or agile. Did this matter? Not really, because the rest of IT was the same. Applications, servers, storage, you name it, were deployed in tight silos on a per-application basis. It wasn’t very optimal, but it worked and that outweighed everything. Then in the late 90s along came a little company called VMware that changed IT forever.

The virtualization of the server, at first, was just a way to run multiple OSes on single server. But look where we are today. We’re talking about having virtual IT resources that are free to be moved from location to location as business policy dictates. The problem with this is sometimes the network can’t respond fast enough because of its closed, static nature. Open networking is a necessary component of delivering on this long-standing vision of "on demand" computing where any resource can move anywhere on a moment’s notice.

For you trekkies out there, consider Mr. Scott in engineering on the Starship Enterprise. When he needed to move power from life support to forward shields, did he have to run down to the data center and re-provision stuff? Heck no. He did it from a centralized management console. What about the network? Can you imagine him having to say to Kirk that power is in the process of moving to forward shields but the complexity of the network is too great and it will be at least a few hours before the CCIEs can get finished writing the scripts needed to create a network path to enable the transfer of power? In all likelihood, the Enterprise had a software-defined network that made all the compute stuff above it work. While most organizations don’t have to worry about Romulans shooting at them, network agility is a must to make all the IT stuff work above it, and that’s the reason why open networks and SDNs have been oh-so-popular over the last couple of years.

With that as the background, consider what infrastructure should look like to support this concept of "open." The best analogy might be to consider what’s happened on the switch side as a comparison. This would require an open switch to have the following characteristics:

  • The operating system is not tied to any specific hardware platform, similar to server virtualization.
  • The switch can be tuned or customized to any environment, and isn’t locked into specific vendors’ tools and hooks.
  • The switch needs to be adaptable to new protocols without causing issues with existing protocol support, similar to RedHat in the Linux world.

The majority of network vendors are becoming more open, but they haven’t fully embraced all of the above, which is what I liked about Pica8.

Pic8 makes an open switch that is completely hardware-independent. The company’s operating system runs on any switching ASIC, CPU or memory hardware. Also, Pica8 has exposed its Linux-based operating system so network managers can use existing tools to customize and optimize the switches to support the ever-changing network requirements. Additionally, Pica8 has built-in OpenFlow integration, which enables adaptability to the upcoming needs of SDNs.

Pica8 probably isn’t for everyone, but for those looking to create a highly flexible, programmable network, they’re worth a look.

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