Will open source SDNs provide relief?

OpenDaylight panel discusses when to standardize, when to innovate to tackle enterprise, service provider challenges

The needs of enterprises and service providers diverge when it comes to software-defined networking. Enterprises are the ones looking for capital and operational cost relief, while service providers require new service velocity, panelists at the inaugural OpenDaylight Summit said this week.

OpenDaylight is the Cisco- and IBM-founded consortium that developed an open source SDN framework in 10 months from 154 contributions. The "Hydrogen" release is downloadable now in three flavors: base, virtualization and service provider edition.

Enterprises face complexity, lack of flexibility to support newer trends like mobility, video and BYOD, and lack of interoperability, says panelist Nick Lippis, head of consultancy Lippis Enterprises and a founder of the Open Networking User Group.

"There's a huge bloat in operational cost and expense in enterprise networks,"  Lippis said during the panel discussion "Forming and Norming for SDN/NFV: Where to Support Innovation and Where to Simplify Life with Standards."

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: SDN, NFV creeping into provider networks+

Service providers face that too, as well as increasing capital expenditures. But their chief motivation for demanding SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is to turn up new services - and revenue - faster.

"They can conceive but they can't implement them fast," says panelist Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation, a service provider-driven group looking to standardize OpenFlow for switch/SDN controller interaction. "They want to increase the velocity of new service introduction."

That sentiment was echoed by Christos Kolias, senior research scientist for Orange Silicon Valley: "We have a lot of heterogeneous networks, legacy equipment, and cannot move resources around as I need to. How can I better innovate?

"Interoperability is extremely important."

The answer is to automate configuration by spreading intelligence throughout the network, panelists agreed. And SDN's premise of decoupling element control form the network element itself is a way to achieve that, according to Guru Parulkar, executive director of Stanford University's Open Network Research Center.

"Decoupling...provides control plane interfaces that are not dependent on a vendor," Parulkar said. "I'm too dependent on vendors that I don't control my own destiny. I want a new way of doing things so I am in control of my destiny."

Decoupling control from forwarding is typically associated with the OpenFlow protocol, which allows an SDN controller to send instructions to southbound OpenFlow switches. But OpenFlow's uptake in the enterprise has lagged behind that in the service provider realm, Lippis says, perhaps because leading enterprise vendors and suppliers haven't, or are just beginning to bake it into their products.

That's one of the reasons why SDN and NFV uptake will be a slow, methodical and deliberate process. Others are lack of experience and fear of the unknown, says Pitt.

"The availability of equipment, experience and organizational inertia" will temper the pace of adoption, Pitt says. "People fear that their jobs are at risk and some of them will be. It's unsettling to change those things."

Adds Parulkar: "SDN is a new paradigm. It will go through its own innovation cycle. There is nothing holding SDN back. It will take time. It has some compelling value propositions and some limitations. It's going through a natural adoption cycle."

Which begs the question, would the industry be better served through SDN standardization or innovation? Are the two mutually exclusive?

Pitt says the ONF is looking to standardize as little as necessary.

"OpenFlow is a great place to standardize for switch development and configuration," he says. "But the key is to choose best-of-breed to build a network. Our real goal is commercial success."

"We have to operate like a software industry," says Parulkar. "Standardize as little as possible and base it on experience."

And that's where open source comes in. Open source represents collaborative innovation with standard and non-standard components from a community that gains experience and then offers to share it with the industry.

Kolias says telecom can "certainly embrace" open source as a standard. Lippis says the enterprise networking market has a "dire need" for a software ecosystem, and app store, like the communities open source encourages.

Parulkar says OpenDaylight in particular is a milestone in SDN, but the consortium will need to police itself from special interests.

"I hope we will be self-critical," he says. "Are we using open source to protect legacy? Incumbents have a tendency to do marginal cost analysis and incrementalism. We have to keep our eyes open and be self-critical."

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