SDN Precon Panel Aims to Define, Assess the Software-Defined Network

By Paula Bernier February 01, 2013

Earlier this week at ITEXPO Miami’s SDN Precon, a panel of experts attempted to tackle some key questions around the software-defined network, including what it is, why it’s important and where it’s going.

“To me, [SDN] is one of the most interesting pivot points in networking I’ve seen pretty much since the Internet,” said Eve Griliches, vice president of optical research at ACG Research, who spoke and moderated at SDN Precon.

The panelists seemed to agree SDN is an architecture that separates the control and data planes of the network. And that, they indicated, can enable ease of management, and create a network that is more responsive to the specific needs of the applications and services running over it.

Ping Pan, chief architect at optical transport switch company Infinera, believes there are three functions of SDN: the ability to provision to the needs of the applications; configuration; and monitoring.

As a result, he said, the transport network will be more visible to the applications.

“Applications need some resources, and networks need some information,” said SDN Precon panelist Nils Swart, director of technical marketing at Plexxi, a software-defined network startup.

Plexxi offers a controller that takes information from applications and uses that data to optimize the underlying network. The company also sells top-of-rack, high-capacity switches so data center operators can adjust uplink capacity based on what applications require.

The company, Swart explained, removes network complexity by delivering control viaa single pane, and rather than bolting on its solution to existing routers and switches, uses hardware in a ring topology with software that handles the control.

“We believe SDN is absolutely already here,” said Swart.

Many reports on SDN have indicated this architecture could put the traditional equipment companies’ business at risk. But Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei had representatives on the SDN Precon panels who talked about how they themselves have or are planning to introduce offers on the software-defined networking front.

Houman Modarres, senior director of marketing in Alcatel-Lucent’s core networks group, noted that his company as of late January hadn’t yet announced its SDN strategy. But he did say that Alcatel-Lucent believes allowing apps to make requests of the network is an important step in making the network side as responsive as the compute side.

Today, the network is not a product, he added, it’s a means to an end. There have been strides in recent years on the Layer 2 network virtualization front that made heads turn, he added, indicating that may have fueled interest in SDN.

But rather than getting excited about a new buzzword, Modarres indicated that what we should be talking about is where we are going, why and how (and if) SDN can help us get that.

The answers for different organizations will vary, he added. 

Huawei, which sells everything from wireless handsets to carrier network equipment, has embraced SDN, said Mike McBride, as a fine-grained way to introduce new services and to offer policy and control that the company’s service provider customers seek.

Michael McBride is a principal engineer within Huawei’s network technology CTO office and a representative of the ONF.

“We’re fully on board” with SDN, he commented.

That said, Huawei customers have spent a lot of money on their existing equipment, so the vendor wants to enable its network elements to accept blades with OpenFlow chipsets, he added. That way, Huawei’s service provider customers can implement OpenFlow and SDN in an incremental way.

ONF recently created a migration working group to address how to transition non-OpenFlow equipment to support OpenFlow, said McBride, who was doing double this week, representing both Huawei and the Open Networking Foundation. The industry group is working off the Google model, and Google has created an OpenFlow-capable new WAN, while slowly migrating its data centers to that WAN.

That’s been very successful for Google, he added, and it’s good for the ONF.

Edited by Braden Becker

Executive Editor, TMC

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