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Is OpenFlow a go?

Momentum growing for switch management scheme, but skepticism abounds, too

By , Network World
May 13, 2011 10:13 AM ET

Network World - LAS VEGAS -- Interop 2011 could have been called The OpenFlow Show.

Vendors were hawking OpenFlow switches and controllers, and a lab demonstration on the show floor displayed the traffic management technique and applicability among multivendor switches. It was the first significant demonstration of the technology at the network industry's big trade show and indicates the growing momentum behind OpenFlow.

"OpenFlow is the first viable approach to software defined networking (SDN), and you can solve problems faster using SDN," says Alex Reimers, a member of the technical staff at startup Big Switch Networks, a maker of OpenFlow controllers. "People want to control their own networks."

BACKGROUND: OpenFlow opens new doors for networks

OpenFlow is a protocol that enables SDN, which means that users can define flows and determine what paths those flows take through a network, regardless of the underlying hardware. 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. Participants in the OpenFlow lab at Interop say it is particularly useful for load balancing, flow control and virtual networking in data centers, private clouds and campus LANs where devices are multiplying and straining network topologies.

"It's really just a protocol and not a complex protocol, but it enables complex functions," says Jed Daniels, director of product development at OPNET Technologies, one of the demonstrators in the OpenFlow lab.

OpenFlow is an open source project borne of a six-year research collaboration between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. 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.

Fifteen vendor participants in the Interop lab were showing beta products. They included Big Switch, Broadcom, Brocade, Citrix, Dell, Extreme Networks, Fulcrum, HP, IBM, Juniper, Marvell, NEC, NetGear and NetOptics. Pronto Systems, a maker of switches that can run OpenFlow software, contributed products that are already shipping.

The demonstration showed OpenFlow controllers, switches acting as OpenFlow agents and OpenFlow applications performing functions like bandwidth calendaring, network virtualization, load balancing, virtual switching and virtual network "slicing." Separately, individual vendors discussed plans to support or study the technology to potentially configure their switches as OpenFlow controllers or agents.

FAQ: What is OpenFlow and why is it needed?

HP, for example, plans to stuff its 5406 switch chassis with server blades to configure the switch as an OpenFlow controller to manage and monitor quality-of-service delegations among OpenFlow switch clients. The company does not have a timeframe, however, for delivering this capability on the 5400 series switches, says Erik Papir, a technical marketing official in HP's networking group.

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