As the curtain came down on 2011, software-defined networking (SDN) and its open-source enabling protocol, OpenFlow, continued to draw plenty of attention. So far, 2012 has been no different, with SDN serving as a locus of intense activity, heady discourse, and steady technological advance.
Just last week, for instance, Big Switch Networks announced the release of Floodlight, a Java-based, Apache-licensed OpenFlow controller. In making Floodlight available under the Apache license, which allows the code to be reused for both research and commercial purposes, Big Switch hopes to establish the controller as a platform for OpenFlow application development.
Big Switch acknowledges that other OpenFlow controllers are available — the company even asks rhetorically, in a blog post accompanying the announcement, whether the world really needs another OpenFlow controller — but it believes that Floodlight is differentiated through its ease 0f use, extensibility, and robustness.
Controller as Platform
I think we all realize by now that OpenFlow is just an SDN protocol. It allows data-path flow tables on switches to be programmed by a software-based controller, represented by the likes of Floodlight. While OpenFlow might be essential as a mechanism for the realization of software-defined networks, it is not where SDN business value will be delivered or where vendors will find their pots of gold.
Next up in the hierarchy of SDN value are the controllers. As Big Switch recognizes, they can serve as platforms for SDN application development. Many vendors, including HP, believe that applications will define the value (and hence the money-making potential) in the SDN universe. That’s a fair assumption.
Big Switch Networks has indicated that it wants to be the “VMware of networking,” delivering network virtualization and providing enterprise-oriented OpenFlow applications. If it can establish its controller as a popular platform for OpenFlow application development, it will set a foundation both for its own commercial success as well as for enterprise OpenFlow in general.
Seeking Enterprise Value
The key to success, of course, will be the degree to which the applications, and the business value that accrues from them, are compelling. We’ll also see management and orchestration, perhaps integrated with the controller(s), but the commercial acceptance of the applications will determine the need and scope for automated management of the overall SDN environment. This is particularly true in the enterprise market that Big Switch has targeted.
What will those enterprise applications be? Well, if I knew answer to that question, I might be on a personal trajectory to obscene wealth, membership in an exclusive secret society, and perhaps ownership of a professional sports team (or, at minimum, a racehorse).
Service Providers Have Different Agenda
Meanwhile, in the rarefied heights of the largest cloud providers, such as the companies that populate the board at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), I suspect that nearly everything of meaningful business value connected with OpenFlow and SDN will be done internally. Google and Facebook, for instance, will design and build (perhaps through ODMs) their own bare-bones servers and switches, and they will develop their own SDN controllers and applications. Their network infrastructure is a business asset, even a competitive advantage, and they will prefer to build and customize their own SDN environments rather than procure products and solutions from networking vendors, whether established players or startups.
Most enterprises, though, will be inclined to look toward the vendor community to equip them with SDN-related products, technologies, and expertise. This is presuming, of course, that an enterprise market for OpenFlow-based SDNs actually finds its legs.
Plenty of Work Ahead
So, again, it all comes back to the power and value of the applications, and this is why Big Switch is so keen to open-source its controller. The enterprise market for OpenFlow-based SDNs won’t grow unless IT departments are comfortable adopting it. Vendors such as Big Switch will have to demonstrate that they are safe bets, capable of providing unprecedented value at minimal risk.
It’s a daunting challenge. OpenFlow definitely possesses long-term enterprise potential, but today it remains a long way from being able to check all the enterprise boxes. Big Switch, not to mention the enterprise OpenFlow community, needs a meaningful ecosystem to materialize sooner rather than later.