Daily Archives: May 29, 2012

Distributed, Hybrid, Northbound: Key Words in Cisco’s SDN Counterstrategy

When it has broached the topic of software-defined networking (SDN) recently, Cisco has attempted to reframe the discussion within the larger context of programmable networks. In Cisco’s conception of the evolving networking universe, the programmable network encompasses SDN, which in turn envelops OpenFlow.

We know by now that OpenFlow is a relatively small part of SDN. OpenFlow is a protocol that provides for the physical separation of the control and data planes, which heretofore have been combined within a switch or router. As such, OpenFlow enables server-based software (a controller) to determine how packets should be forwarded by network elements. As has been mentioned before, here and elsewhere, mechanisms other than OpenFlow could be used for the same purpose.

Logical Outcome

SDN is bigger than OpenFlow. It deals not only with the abstraction of the data plane, but also with higher-layer abstractions, at the control plane and above. The whole idea behind SDN is to put the applications, and the services they deliver, in the driver’s seat, so that the network does not become a costly encumbrance that impedes business agility and operational efficiency. In that sense, Cisco is right to suggest that programmable networks are a logical outcome that can and should result from the rise of SDN.

That said, the devil can always be found in the details, and we should note that Cisco’s definition of SDN, to the extent that it might invoke that acronym rather one of its own, is at variance with the definition that has been proffered by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which is controlled by the world’s largest cloud-service providers rather than by the world’s largest networking vendors. Cisco’s understanding of SDN looks a lot more like conventional networking, with a distributed or hybrid control plane instead of the logically centralized control plane favored by the ONF.

This post isn’t about value judgments, though. I am not here to bash Cisco, or anybody else for that matter, but to understand and interpret Cisco’s motivations as it formulates a counterstrategy to the ONF’s plans.

Bog-Standard Switches

Given the context, then, it’s easy to understand why Cisco favors the retention of the distributed — or, failing that, even a hybrid — control plane. Cisco is the market leader in switches and routers, and it owns a lot of valuable real estate on its customers’ networks.  If OpenFlow succeeds, not only in service-provider networks but also in the enterprise, Cisco is at risk of losing the market dominance it has worked so long and hard to build.

Frankly, there isn’t much differentiation to be achieved in bog-standard OpenFlow switches. If the Googles of the world get their way, the merchant silicon vendors all will support OpenFlow on their chipsets, and industry-standard boxes will be available from a number of ODMs and OEMs. It will be a prototypical buyer’s market, perhaps advancing quickly toward commoditization, and that’s not a prospect that Cisco shareholders and executives wish to entertain.

As Cisco comes to grips with SDN, then, it needs to rediscover the sort of leverage that it had before the advent of the ONF.  After all, if SDN is all about putting applications and other software literally in control of networks composed of industry-standard boxes, then network hardware will suffer a significant margin-squeezing demotion in the value hierarchy of customers.  And Cisco, as we’ve discussed before, develops more than its fair share of software, but remains a company wedded to a hardware-based business model.

Compromise and Accommodation 

Cisco would like to resist and undermine any potential market shift to the ONF’s server-based controllers. Fortunately for Cisco, many within the ONF are willing to acquiesce, at least initially and up to a point. A general consensus seems to have developed about the need for a hybrid control plane, which would accommodate both logically centralized controllers and distributed boxes. The ONF’s braintrust sees this move as a necessary compromise that will facilitate a long-term transition to a server-based model. It seems a logical and rational deduction — there’s a lot of networking gear installed out there that does not support the ONF’s conception of SDN — but it’s an opening for Cisco, nonetheless.

Beyond the issue of physical separation of the data plane and the control plane, Cisco has at least one other card to play.  You might have noticed that Cisco representatives have talked a lot during the past couple months about a “northbound interface” for SDN. As currently constituted, OpenFlow is a “southbound” interface, in that serves as a mechanism for a controller to program a switch. On a network diagram, that communication flows downward (hence southbound).

In SDN, a northbound interface would go upward, extending from the switch to the control plane and potentially beyond to applications and management/orchestration software. This is a discussion Cisco wants to have with the industry, at the ONF and elsewhere. Whereas southbound interfaces are all about what is done to a switch by external software, the northbound interface is a conduit by which the switch confers value — in the form of information intrinsic to the network — to the higher layers of abstraction.

Northbound Traffic

For now, the ONF has chosen not to define standard protocols or APIs for northbound interfaces, which could run from the networking devices up to the control plane and to higher layers of abstraction. Cisco, as the vendor with the largest installed base of gear in customer networks, finds itself in a logical position to play a role in helping to define those northbound interfaces.

Ideally, if programmable networks and SDN fulfill their potential, we’ll see the development of a virtuous feedback loop at the highest layers of abstraction, with software programming an underlying virtualized network and the network sending back state and other data that dynamically allows applications to perform even better.

Therefore, the northbound interface will be an important element in the future of SDN. Cisco hopes to leverage it, but more for the sustenance of its own business model than for the furtherance of the ONF’s objectives. Cisco holds some interesting cards, but it should be careful not to overplay them. Ultimately, it does not control the ONF.

As the SDN discourse elevates beyond OpenFlow, watch the traffic in the northbound lanes.