SDNs move from theory to reality

SDN said to be a stronger intellectual foundation of networking

SDNs have gone from concept to reality.

Users that were listening to vendor and researcher pitches on the benefits of software-defined networking at Open Networking Summit just a few years ago have taken over the dais and are now sharing their initial implementation experiences.

Virtually all of those virtualisation experiences are from service providers that have urgent requirements to make their networks more agile and automated in order to turn up new services that are the lifeblood of their business.

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"Abstraction is a solution for everything," says venture capitalist Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, which funded many an SDN startup.  "The problems - opex cost reduction, provisioning complexity, visibility and diagnostics, hardware network appliances, brittle network, difficult fault isolation - SDN is a stronger intellectual foundation of networking, helps define the right abstractions, formally verify correct network behavior, identify bugs and track down their root cause."

Japanese telecom giant NTT is using SDNs and the OpenFlow protocol to virtualise routers and switches within and between cloud datacentres to automate and expedite configuration changes for enterprise customers. It's also developing a single controller to configure MPLS VPN and datacentre VLAN edge routers between datacentres using OpenFlow, said Yukio Ito, senior vice president of infrastructure at NTT.

And through its recent acquisition of Cloud provider Virtela, NTT is adopting Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) to offer automated, cloud-based firewall, WAN acceleration and SSL remote access services to enterprises on-demand. NTT also plans to adopt the OpenStack Neutron API to orchestrate SDN controllers and cloud operations, and save on capital and operations expenses, Ito said.

SDN and NFV at AT&T is a culture change, according to John Donovan, senior executive vice president of technology and network operations. Not only will SDN and NFV disrupt AT&T's entrenched service network, it will disrupt the way the carrier does business.

"We're changing everything: how the network is built, how we're buying equipment and software, our operations and culture," Donovan said during his Open Networking Summit keynote. "We're using a consumption model for purchasing and provisioning. We're tapping into open principles to make that happen."

The overhaul is AT&T's Domain 2.0 network virtualization project to embrace commodity, white box hardware and SDN controllers. AT&T is dedicating its entire capital budget to this new infrastructure, Donovan said, and has reached out to 100 established vendors and 1,200 start-ups to evaluate potential participation in it.

"This is not a closed room with a handful of companies making decisions," Donovan said. "It's an open process. We're calling on the industry at large to move quickly with us."

Domain 2.0 is also an ongoing competitive process that will not shun a vendor that comes late to the game but may have built a better mousetrap, Donovan said.

Domain 2.0 will be implemented in waves. The first this year will see AT&T put SDN controllers on existing platforms to test and perhaps extend useful life of existing assets. AT&T won't do overlays, Donovan said, but will establish about a half dozen "beachhead" projects to "toe tag" existing assets, with a "rapid pivot" to the new environment.

In 2015, platforms will emerge designed for and deployed in a highly distributed cloud, eventually encompassing the carrier's 4,600 data centers.

But AT&T is no SDN neophyte. To date, the carrier has abstracted the entire control plane from its backbone, Donovan said, and has "a number" of abstraction layers deployed throughout its network.

But there are challenges along the way.

"Orchestration of those controllers is a very, very complex thing," Donovan said, no less resolute. "We're moving out and we're moving out in a big way."

Why?

"No army can hold back an economic principle whose time has come," he said of the SDN/NFV uprising.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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