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OpenFlow opens new doors for networks

New networking protocol for traffic management ready for demos, availability

By , Network World
April 14, 2011 12:07 PM ET

Network World - With a new industry organization to promote it, routing protocol OpenFlow is about to give users unprecedented ease of control over the way their networks operate.

OpenFlow enables software-defined networking, which means that users can define flows and determine what paths those flows take through a network, regardless of the underlying hardware. Last month, this approach was embraced by a wide range of big-name industry players as they formed the Open Networking Foundation to push the protocol.

OpenFlow is an open source project borne of a six-year research collaboration between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. OpenFlow can take control of how traffic flows through a network out of the hands of the infrastructure -- the switches and routers -- and put it in the hands of the network owner, individual users or individual applications. This capability could allow users to craft policies that find paths with available bandwidth, less latency or congestion, and fewer hops.

FAQ: What is the OpenFlow protocol and why is it needed?

Though it's useful, it's not as revolutionary as some might think, says Scott Shenker, a founding board member of the ONF and a professor at UC Berkeley.

"This approach doesn't let you do anything you couldn't do on a network before," Shenker says. "[But] it gives you a programmatic interface --- it lets you program what you want to have happen in the network, how you want to route packets, how you want to do load balancing, how you want to do access control. So it's really that generality that drove us."

"It lets you create and run a multi-tenant network," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "It's more than a VLAN; it's a true virtual network."

Kerravala says OpenFlow's open source roots allow users to experiment with it, too, by quickly creating and implementing new features and functions and customizing the network to specific requirements. As an example, users could use OpenFlow to program switches to conserve power consumption by disabling unused links and switch ports.

OpenFlow has a lot of backers, a veritable Who's Who in the industry, in the ONF. Founders include Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo; non-founding members include Cisco, Brocade, Juniper Networks, HP, Broadcom, Ciena, Riverbed Technology, Force10, Citrix, Dell, Ericsson, IBM, Marvell, NEC, Netgear, NTT and VMware.

POSSIBILITIES: Microsoft researchers tout low-cost, programmable prototype data center switch

Brocade will offer OpenFlow on its switches later this year, says Ken Cheng, vice president of service provider products at the company. The company is exploring the technology as a way to manage "hyperscale" in a data center that has hundreds and thousands of racks of equipment. Brocade is also evaluating OpenFlow as a method for flow management on the WAN, and to better control virtualization in a data center.

"We have MAC addresses in the millions, potentially" from virtualization, Cheng says. "That scale is beyond what any reasonably constructed switches can comprehend."

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