HP this week said it is taking its first leap into OpenFlow-enabled network equipment, supporting the standard on 16 of its Ethernet switch products as it attempts to gain a foothold in a market likely to receive significant attention from competitors.
Beyond adding OpenFlow support on this first batch of switches, which includes the HP 3500, 5400 and 8200 series, HP plans to extend OpenFlow support across all of the switches offered under its FlexNetwork architecture.
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OpenFlow is a software-defined networking standard that has been a major topic of discussion in the network and infrastructure management field of late, with those in academia and the research sector weighing its potential for the future. Initially used for research, OpenFlow essentially replaces the network equipment required for the control plane with source code. Proponents say doing that eliminates the need for hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of switches and routers, enabling network managers to move core routers to the edge and better examine the network. Also, because the controller is adapted to software code, network managers are afforded the freedom to program their own networks.
OpenFlow's ability to help IT staff gain insight into the network and develop entirely new architectures is what made it a win for the researchers and technologists who worked with it from the start. This includes HP Networking distinguished technologist Charles Clark, who worked alongside the first technologists who crafted OpenFlow at Stanford University in 2007.
"We started working with Stanford and found that they had come up with this very interesting idea of being able to centrally control flow tables of switches in the network, and trying to understand how we can use that both for research purposes and maybe also for solutions for customers," Clark says.
However, OpenFlow has primarily remained a research protocol in the four years since it was introduced. That's why Saar Gillai, CTO of HP Networking, says the announcement of OpenFlow support for the company's switches is a landmark for HP.
"Up until now there certainly hasn't been any availability of OpenFlow on [HP's] Tier 1 products, and with this we're sort of crossing that boundary," Gillai says. "When you cross that boundary, [the market] does change, which is one of the reasons that we think this is a big deal. We think that now customers can feel safe that they have it on a supported product, and we do think it's going to start more use cases in the enterprise."
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Growth in OpenFlow adoption and real-world use at the enterprise network level will not happen overnight, Gillai says. At first, he expects organizations, including universities, that are already familiar with OpenFlow to be open to HP's new switch portfolio. Once those use cases gain more recognition, the conversation in the industry surrounding OpenFlow will shift from the theoretical to that of real-world results, Gillai says.
"Although there are certainly deployments that people are actually using, most of the chatter is around what could be done," Gillai says. "Over the next year, as people start using this type of technology in certain applications, whether it's with service providers, large data centers and so forth, some of the discussion will move more toward how things are done or what deployments look like and where it looks better and where it looks worse. So I think it's going to be more discussion about experience and less discussion about theoretical."
Experts on OpenFlow believe widespread adoption of the protocol will be gradual simply because of the nature of the network industry. Dan Schmiedt, executive director of network and telecom at Clemson University, says current infrastructure management practices are so ingrained in traditional standards that it will take time for many to migrate.
"That is to say that nothing is really changing or advancing -- we're still basically using the same protocols and paradigms we used 20 years ago," Schmiedt says. "With good reason, too: it works, and even if someone came up with the best new protocol there ever had been, it would be at best a decade before it was implemented in any network box."
However, the progression may be moving along more quickly than Schmiedt had predicted. In his work with OpenFlow and software-defined networking at Clemson, Schmiedt has already seen the potential for widespread operational change stemming from an innovative approach to the network.
"Perhaps that is the most important thing about SDN/OF: it opens networking to true innovators instead of simple protocol plumbers like me," Schmiedt says. "My world is fixed in the OSI model and the way we've always done things. Since the advent of OF, and for the first time in my 15 years in networking, I regularly interact with students and faculty who seek to solve real-world networking problems."
For HP, Clark believes the release of its new switch portfolio is a milestone.
"We're kicking the year off with the availability of production-quality OpenFlow switches," Clark says. "This is the beginning of that transformation from research to production. It'll be an exciting year for OpenFlow."
HP certainly isn't alone in the race to make network equipment Openflow compatible. IBM and NEC, for example, have collaborated on a collection of OpenFlow-enabled switches.
Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, follow him on Twitter: @ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin's email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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