SDN makes the WSJ

I am one of those WSJ junkies – I get it via old-fashioned-paper in my driveway, the website, the tablet edition, and audio via Audible, which I listen to every morning on my way to work. I was very surprised to hear it mention SDN – software defined networking (aka “OpenFlow”) – in a newsbite on this morning’s drive in. When I got to a computer, I saw the actual story was called “Upgrade Race for Data Centers“. There’s not much deep insights or explanations, but I was a bit sobered to see such a bleeding edge technology make a “head line” in the WSJ. But as the article says, the ramifications for the old guard networking companies could eventually be seismic.

The concept of SDN is a centralized independent, non-proprietary process distributing policies down to the routers and switches, effectively programatically telling them how to handle packets. In today’s conventional networks, each switch has proprietary software that tells it what to do. OpenFlow, an open source project from Stanford U and the Open Networking Foundation is the first – or at least one of the first – SDN protocols to be developed. SDN is being driven by industry trends such as cloud services, on-demand expectations of solution delivery, end-user BYOD mobility, and changing traffic patterns in the data center (i.e., from the “north-south” directions of client/server to “east-west,” in which applications access different databases and servers before delivering data back to the client). 

Some call this “white box networking” because it enables an open source server process to tell a switch what to do. The server process makes the decisions on how to move packets rather than the box that actually moves the packets. Now, someone can program the network independently of the gear inside the data center and the software on the switch. Google has been a prime backer of the technolog; Gigaom says “Google is ushering in the era of white box networking similarly to what SuperMicro has done in severs“.

Shamefully, I don’t think we have made mention of this technology before on this site, although I have loosely been following it in the Network World bi-monthlies (e.g) and Packet Pusher podcasts. Packet Pushers offers a nice intro podcast and video in shows 40 and 68 that I can recommend.

Most organizations don’t have the resources Google does to make commodity hardware and open source software work magic. This is probably not something that we IT managers need to be conversant in now, but we need to ensure our top networking guys are following. As it matures, it will likely become a play in the enterprise and then in the SMB market. Obviously Cisco thinks so given their recent unveiling.