OpenFlow inventor: Network provisioning will inevitably be automated

Martin Casado, inventor of OpenFlow and CTO of stealth startup Nicira, talks about the future of OpenFlow, networking and the job of the network engineer.

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MC: It really is about innovation because, if you couple layers, it’s very difficult to innovate on one layer without the rest holding you back. So if you look at a server, you’ve got a very well defined interface, your Intel CPU, then you have an operating system on top of that, which you have very well defined interface on top of that for writing applications, and often applications have very well defined interfaces on top of them. But if you look at networking gear, the hardware is proprietary, the operating system is built by the same people that built the hardware and often the applications that sit on top of that are written by the same people, too. So you can’t innovate one without modifying the other two; they’re much more tightly coupled than you normally see. I think working with a horizontally integrated model, where you’ve got open interfaces on every layer, is good for competition  and it’s the right methodology for building a system, where you want to evolve each layer independently.

Nicira network hypervisor

Nicira's vision of the virtualized network.

AF:  If an application has network requirements … quality, security, what have you -- it’s hard to find this information and communicate the information between applications and the network, and today, that’s typically a very manual process.  If OpenFlow defines one interface that exists between, say, a controller and the forwarding hardware, that could potentially be an interface that applications could directly communicate with.   I’m thinking of a northbound API from a controller. Is there work, standards-wise, that’s being done on that northbound API, or do you see applications integrating directly into the OpenFlow stack, and communicating directly with forwarding hardware?

MC: Yeah, this has been discussed a lot. My personal opinion is that we need to stay very, very focused on one layer right now. I’d be very interested in seeing OpenFlow coming out, having general support in hardware, having multivendor support, having a good ecosystem on products that use it. Even though this comes up all the time, I think we should all focus on one piece of the puzzle. That said, clearly, you do want kind of a higher way of interacting with the network. But it’s not clear to me that this is a northbound API, it’s not clear to me that this is something that sits on top of a network operating system; it’s not clear to me how this will look. This is so totally embryonic. I view OpenFlow almost as a BIOS. It’s kind of a nice independent way of talking to the hardware, and that’s it. And I think if we just get this accomplished, we’ve done a great thing, and then the rest will follow.

AF: Yeah, it’s funny, when I described OpenFlow, one of the ways that I describe it is it’s kind of like what the Phoenix BIOS was to the IBM PC.  If look at how computing has evolved, and Phoenix BIOS was a huge piece of it, but it relied on a lot of other things happening in the ecosystem before it was really able to bring the value to market.

MC: Exactly, I really believe you should build systems first and then worry about standardizations later. We should be really driven by engineering and design. And so, in order to get hardware compatibility, you need something like OpenFlow, you need to have that BIOS. But let’s let the operating system evolve organically, because otherwise, you’re going to have a bunch of people in a room and they’re going to come up with something, and it’s not clear that it’s going to solve any problems at all. So I really believe, just get the BIOS out and then let the community at it. People will go crazy, they’ll build great systems, and out of that, we’ll naturally evolve a system that maybe then we can standardize on later. But I think that just having OpenFlow alone will totally unleash the fury.

AF: That’s how the computing model evolved, right? That’s how it started with Phoenix BIOS and Microsoft came out and  even though it’s proprietary it built a much more open software development environment and a lot of great openness evolved from that like Linux and BSD variants.

MC: Horizontal integration just means that you can mix and match the pieces like Lego pieces right, but each one of those individual pieces, they could be closed or they could be open.  You brought up Microsoft and I think that’s perfect. Microsoft is a closed product, but it’s in a horizontally integrated market. So you can run Windows or Linux on top of an x86. Networking needs that level of horizontal integration. And that doesn’t mean that the big vendors don’t come out with big proprietary pieces of the layer, I think that’s good, we should all encourage that, this is how innovation happens. I  think Cisco is a fantastic company trying to solve some really hard problems. If this technology gets them there quicker, I think they’d be very interested in figuring that out.

AF: Cisco makes great products but I think the market could use a little more diversity. With Cisco having 80% market share, how does a startup get their foot in the door? Either Cisco buys into it or they don’t, and historically that has defined what can become successful in the networking industry outside of little specific niche markets where we see Arista, Juniper and Force10 having some success. I think everyone would benefit from having this ecosystem develop and a lot more horizontal integration to bring innovation to the industry.

MC: I would agree.

AF: Both Big Switch Networks and Nicira came out of Stanford and seem to be charting similar paths. Is there any sort of division or contention between the two groups? Is there anything you could tell me about what Nicira’s go-to-market strategy will be, what markets you’ll be attacking, or comment on the timeframe you think you’ll be announcing something?

MC: As for Big Switch I know Guido very well, he’s a good friend of mine, but they are kind of off doing their own thing, I think it’s in a very different area, but we don’t keep any tabs. As far as our announcement, Nicira has never issued a press release. So we are very much about customer engagements. We’re heavily involved in those right now. When we feel like we are in the right place, we’ll announce, but until then …

AF: Any comment on the types of customer’s your engaging with at this point?

MC: All types

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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