• United States
Senior Editor

Open source, programmability, and as-a-service play a big role in future networks

News Analysis
Mar 25, 20216 mins
Data CenterNetworkingTechnology Industry

As networks rely more on software, industry experts expect open-source to play a role in Layer 2 and 3 functionality, and that data-centers will rely more on cloud-like services.

network variables + dynamics / digital transformation
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

Networks of the not-to-distant future could feature many more open-source software components, advanced programmability, and be delivered as-a-service, according to experts speaking at the Future:Net 2021 symposium.

Attendees of the virtual event heard predictions from vendors such as Cisco, Google, and Microsoft as well as academics and analyst firms such as Gartner and 451 Research. 

A key theme from many of the speakers was that networks and networking technology of the future will feature way more software controls and programmability than most enterprise customers see in their environments today. 

Such major changes start with the growing use open source networking technology.

Leading the way at the moment is the growing interest and use of open-sourced network operating systemm Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC).

The Linux-based NOS, developed and open sourced by Microsoft, decouples network software from the underlying hardware and lets it run on switches and ASICs from multiple vendors while supporting a full suite of network features such as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), remote direct memory access (RDMA), QoS.

There’s a lot of hype around SONiC right now, but there is also real-world adoption of it, and it’s one of the more disruptive longer term trends in the market, said Andrew Lerner, a vice president with Gartner. A recent report by Gartner predicts that by 2025, 40% of organizations that operate data-center networks with more than 200 switches will run SONiC in production and that Gartner client interest in SONiC increased 87% year over year from 2020 to 2021.

The vendor community around SONiC has been growing as well and includes Dell, Arista, Nokia, Apstra, Alibaba, Comcast, Cisco, Broadcom, Juniper, Edgecore, Innovium, Intel, IP Infusion, Huawei, Nvidia-Mellanox and VMware.

“Due to this rapidly expanding customer interest and commercial ecosystem, there is a strong possibility that, during the next three to six years, SONiC will become analogous to Linux as a server OS, allowing enterprises to standardize on an NOS that is supported across hardware vendors,” Lerner stated in the report.  “This creates opportunity for innovation in the same manner that Linux-based tooling and Linux expertise propelled benefits for customers.”

But it’s not just SONiC getting attention. There are a number of other open-source networking projects gaining interest as well, according to Nick McKeown a professor at Stanford University and chairman and co-founder of Barefoot Networks.

Those include technologies such as the Open vSwitch (OVS) virtual switch, the Facebook open switching system (FBOSS), OpenConfig and Free Range Routing (FRR) projects, McKeown said.

“Open source has reemerged as a legitimate and trustworthy way to control networks,” McKeown said. “It was ignored for a while but has reemerged because it has really proven itself through Linux , Mozilla, Apache and other open efforts. Time and again it has been shown if you have open source and you have a lot of eyes on it and people developing it they will make it better and more reliable.”

Hand-in-hand with the open source notion is the idea that in the future, networks will be more programmable with more features and control delivered through software. 

“In a few years no one will configure networking, they will only configure applications,” said Vijoy Pandey, vice president and CTO with Cisco Cloud. “We want autonomous, programmable networks that take care of themselves because configuration challenge is going to move to the application layer and that’s where we will be solving problems.”

The idea is that networks will ultimately be operated by few but programmed by many, Pandey said.

“Networks for the first time will be programmable top-to-bottom because the owner operator will be in control of that software end-to-end,  and they will be able to shape everything from the way they process packets through the switches and NICs, all defined entirely by software,” McKeown said. “It opens up some amazing new possibilities as well, because if everything is defined in software we can bring to bear software engineering tools and techniques that we really haven’t been able to borrow from computer systems until recently.”

In addition to being highly programable, networks will also move from being highly automated to autonomous, said Bikash Koley vice president of Google Global Networking.

“The network in the future is going to learn what a good operational state is–so much so that it can act on its own when the network deviates from the known good state and will enter a preventive state or fast mitigation,” Koley said.  “An autonomous network will detect change in demand, traffic patterns and react. Expect, too, that the autonomous network will autoscale if needed to address increasing load requirements.”

Another trend the experts say will impact the networking world will be the delivery of network functions as a service.   

“All network and security services in the future will be delivered through a SaaS model,” Pandey said. 

The network will be cloud-native, with network functions and security delivered from the cloud edge, said Koley.  “By cloud native I mean modern container microservices implementation of the management plane for plane for networking is going to become the norm,” he said.

“This lets users have infrastructure as code irrespective of the underlying network being physical or virtual,” Koley said.  “The network will be delivered as a cloud-native service, delivered as SaaS; just as storage and compute is delivered, the network will be delivered the same way.”

For data-center customers it will be a new way to consume data-center networking resources in a cloud like way, Lerner said, including self-service, a single portal for networking services–all metered for consumption-based billing.

“We’ve seen some vendors already investing in technologies now to deliver services in a cloud-like way,” Lerner said.  “And some steps we’ve already seen–separating hardware from software, shifting software to be subscription-based changing the management portal, and delivering that as a service.” On the horizon is hardware-as-a-service where customers subscribe to use hardware vs. buying it at fixed per-port pricing.

He said that by 2023 he predicts that at least two major data-center networking vendors will offer monthly, fixed, per-port pricing, and by 2025, 30% of enterprises will procure new data-center switches via hardware-as-a-service, Lerner said.