Interop 2012: Networking Still Matters
Sometimes it takes a fire hose event like a trade show to remind those of us that follow the UC&C space where all of these wonderful productivity tools (VoIP, video and web conferencing) live: the enterprise network. All of those rich media streams of audio, video, and data content ride along the same network that carries everything else that keeps the business running. If the network isn’t up to the task, the best communications and collaboration tools will fall down with it. That is why is it is heartening to see renewed interest and new energy going into the network, which featured prominently at Interop 2012 Las Vegas.
The biggest buzz at the show was around the concept of software-defined network (SDN). The premise of SDN is simple: separating the data plane, the parts of the network switch that move packets from point A to point B, and the control plane, the supervisory components that define what the makeup of that network. These two planes today exist as dedicated hardware within the modern network switch.
In software-defined networks the data plane in either hardware or virtual switches becomes subservient not to its on-board supervisor, but to an external controller application running on physical or virtual servers. In the case of OpenFlow, a small piece of software, an agent, is embedded within the firmware of the network switch, directing it to take commands from the external application.
In theory, software-defined networks make a lot of sense. The controller server is not bound to a single network switch to supervise, yet it can deliver command and control capabilities across every network switch in the enterprise. The controller software can be just another rack of physical servers or run as multiple virtual machine instances to provide redundancy and high availability capabilities. This architecture can be significantly less costly than paying for redundant hardware supervisors in every single network switch. With a high level of visibility, the SDN controller can direct individual network ports, no matter where on the enterprise network they physically exist to join together as a logical switch, presenting itself like a local switch to the servers and devices. And because it is driven by software, all of the network designs and configurations can be changed instantly and dynamically, with or without human intervention.
These capabilities can make your unified communications applications appear like they are running side-by-side on the same local network. SDN can make it happen, even if the individual applications are in separate server racks or even in disparate data centers. Move the applications around in the virtual environment and an SDN will track those movements and automatically adjust the network to maintain the logical network, both on-premises and, in theory, cloud-based infrastructure. Better yet, more sophisticated applications could actually request changes to be made to the network on the fly. A call controller, for example, could programmatically adjust the QoS settings to all ports or shut down access to other applications, to ensure that an emergency call goes through.
However, theory and practical implementations are two separate things. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is leading the charge to standardize how network equipment and controller applications communicate and interact with each other, based on the OpenFlow protocol. The ONF has a number of the networking vendors in the fold and they are working to deliver OpenFlow to the market. However, some of the biggest networking vendors have accepted the premise of SDN, but have not yet embraced the specific OpenFlow standards. Instead they are finding their own ways to deliver on the promise of software-defined networking.
In other words, the networking market is responding to SDN, at least initially, like it has with any other disruptive shift in networking technology—proprietary if they can, adopt standards if they must.
The software-defined networking concept is a dynamic, ever-malleable enterprise network. It is ultimately the shape of things to come and an ideal response to the challenges that enterprises face in the age of server virtualization and the convergence of data, unified communications, and storage on a single IP network. Network administrators and their command line configurations simply cannot keep up with this dynamic environment, and their networks will have to become as virtual and automated as the applications that are running on top of it. It remains to seen whether OpenFlow, proprietary standards, or something else brings us to this panacea, but one thing is clear: Everyone in the networking market knows it has to get there. The network still matters and it is time for it to catch up with the technologies that are developing around it.