The companies that make routers, switches and other network equipment are standing on the edge of a cliff.A new type of networking has come along that will change everything for them. It is called software defined networking (SDN).
SDN is a new way to do networking in software, much like VMware was a new way to stuff software on a server. SDN tricks servers into thinking that they’ve got network gear all to themselves, configured exactly the way they like it, when they are really sharing that gear with other servers. More servers can share less network gear and they can also be moved around easier — a big plus for cloud computing.
Yesterday the network gear industry decided it isn’t going to stand by and let SDN technology kill it. A good number of the biggest players decided to be smart and embrace it, and shape it.
SDN technology has already been the basis for startups, including one that is the buzz of the network industry, Nicira. Nicira sprang from the graduate work of Martín Casado when he was at Stanford. He called his SDN method OpenFlow. OpenFlow has also become the foundation for other startups like Big Switch Networks.
So in an atypical move for this industry full of smack talkers, 12 of the biggest players said they would work together on SDN.
These are CableLabs, Cisco, Ericsson, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, Intel, Juniper, NEC, NTT Docomo, Texas Instruments and VMware. [Press release, PDF].
They agreed to create a new SDN research centre called The Open Networking Research centre (ONRC). It will be refereed by two university professors: Nick McKeown from Stanford and Scott Shenker from Berkeley.
SDN doesn’t replace the need for routers and switches. But what’s scaring the bejeebers out of the likes of Cisco is that SDN moves a lot of the intelligence out of the network gear.
Nicira’s gear sits on either end of a network connection and works just as well with cheap gear from, say, Huawei, as it does with premium gear from Cisco. (Last week, Cisco named Huawei as its biggest rival.)
Cisco has made its fortune selling high end network gear using its proprietary software, called Internet Operating System (IOS). Juniper has been competing with its own operating system JUNOS. For the past few years, companies like Cisco and Juniper have been trying to make their network gear more intelligent. They’ve been building software “fabrics” which makes all their gear work together better. Juniper invested $100 million in its QFabric released last year.
OpenFlow, in contrast, is open source and alters the way networks are designed so drastically that fabrics are not necessary.
Some established players, like HP, have jumped right in and promised to adopt OpenFlow. Until yesterday’s announcement Cisco had been tight-lipped about OpenFlow, reports Network World. There were even some rumours that Cisco was going to try and create its own SDN.
So the industry has been dabbling, but until now, not really working together.
“Now is a great time to do an open source effort because it can draw from the experiences of the many projects that have grown out of the SDN/OpenFlow movement over the last five years,” Casado told Business Insider.
From this effort, new network companies will eventually arise.
“I think there is the potential for the creation of software-only companies in networking, and service companies that package and distribute that software,” he adds. “For the established players, I think this is an opportunity to engage the community in a way that has been, in my opinion, largely missing.”
And if the big established players don’t watch it, these startups will be the next crop of big networking companies.