IBM and NEC Find Early Adopters for OpenFlow-based SDNs

News arrived today that IBM and NEC have joined forces to work on OpenFlow deployments. The two companies’ joint solution integrates IBM’s Open Flow-enabled RackSwitch G8264 10/40GbE top-of-rack switch with NEC’s ProgrammableFlow Controller, PF5240 1/10 Gigabit Ethernet Switch, and PF5820 10/40 Gigabit Ethernet Switch.

What’s more, the two technology partners boast early adopters, who are using OpenFlow-based software-defined networks (SDNs) for real-world applications.

Actual Deployments by Early Adopters

Granted, one of those organizations, Stanford University, is firmly ensconced in academia, but the other two are commercial concerns, which are using the technology for applications that apparently confer significant business value. As Stacey Higginbotham writes at GigaOm, these deployments validate the commercial potential of SDNs that utilize the OpenFlow protocol in enterprise environments.

The three early adopters cover some intriguing application scenarios. Tervela, a purveyor of a distributed data fabric,  says the joint solution delivers dynamic networking that ensures predictable performance of Big Data for complex, demanding applications such as global trading, risk analysis, and e-commerce.

Another early adopter is Selerity Corporation. At Network Computing, Mike Fratto provides an excellent overview of how Selerity — which provides real-time, machine-readable financial information to its subscribers — is using the technology to save money and reduce complexity by replacing a convoluted set of VLANs, high-end firewalls, and  application-level processes with flow rules defined on NEC’s Programmable Flow Controller.

More to Come

Stanford, which, along with the University of California Berkeley, first developed the OpenFlow protocol, is using the NEC-IBM networking gear to  deploy a campus-wide experimental network that will run alongside its production backbone network. As Higginbotham writes (see link above), Stanford is using network programmability to provision bandwidth on demand for campus researchers.

It’s good to read details about OpenFlow deployments and about how bigger-picture SDNs can be applied for real-world benefits. I suspect we’ll be reading about more SDN deployments as the year progresses.

One quibble I have with the IBM press release is that it does not demarcate clearly between where OpenFlow ends at the controller and where SDN abstraction and higher-layer application intelligence take over.

Applications Drive Adoption

Reading about these early deployments, I couldn’t help but conclude that most of the value — and doubtless professional-service revenue for IBM — is derived through the application logic that informs the controller. Those applications ride above OpenFlow, which only serves the purpose of allowing the controller to communicate with the switch so that it forwards packets in a prescribed manner.

Put another way, as pointed out by those with more technical acumen than your humble scribe, OpenFlow is a protocol for interaction between the control and the forwarding plane. It serves a commendable purpose, but it’s a purpose that can be fulfilled in other ways.

What’s compelling and potentially unique about emerging SDNs are the new applications that drive their adoption. Others have written about where SDNs do and don’t make sense, and now we’re beginning to see tangible confirmation from the marketplace, the ultimate arbiter of all things commercial.

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