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Dell N-Series Switches Bring OpenFlow To Campus Networks

New campus switches take advantage of the Force10 OS and with OpenFlow support, promise to help enterprises leverage software-defined networking.

Dell announced its new N-series campus access switches this week. This new series does away with the old PowerConnect operating system in favor of one based on Force10 Networks' OS (FTOS), which Dell acquired in 2011. The N-series is also notable for the inclusion of OpenFlow support for campus networks.

The new N-series have specs that meet the needs of campus users today. Support for 10Gb Ethernet uplinks in the N3000 ensures the wiring closet won't be phased out soon. The N4000 provides 24 or 48 10GbE ports and seems suited for data center top-of-rack (ToR) deployments. These switches are also capable of being stacked, with up to 12 units participating in the unified control plane. With these capabilities, Dell seems to be embracing a hyperscale networking model similarly to Brocade.

The addition of OpenFlow support in the switch is one of the more interesting features since OpenFlow has been focused primarily in data center networking, where traffic flows are more predictable. Campus networks are a bit more volatile in terms of users connecting to edge ports and flows being directed haphazardly between data center servers and Internet connections.

Dell has also been developing its own OpenFlow controller to integrate into SDN environments. The company is a silver member of the OpenDaylight project -- which is developing an open-source controller -- yet it's also working on its own to build an entirely different controller. Initially, Dell said this was to integrate better into the various fragmented projects that embraced open source, such as OpenDaylight, or open standards, such as Juniper's OpenContrail. Dell has stated it wants to be a transparent layer between all of these functions to make everything work seamlessly.

I think Dell is taking a unique approach here. With the introduction of the N-series, it's trying to bring OpenFlow to the campus, and its controller is a step to integrate the campus into a larger management portfolio through OpenFlow. I've seen recent demos from HP about the capabilities of OpenFlow in a campus environment. The ability to troubleshoot campus connectivity issues and visualize traffic paths is impressive. Dell is trying for something very similar.

[Read about a Facebook-led effort to develop an open, operating-system agnostic switch in "Open Compute Project Considers Switch Specs"]

By standardizing its switch operating systems on FTOS-like software, Dell has a homogenous base to start programming networks. Much like Juniper's Junos operating system, the similarity of configuration between campus and data center will allow for ease of skill portability. It also means that code written for the data center can easily be rewritten to work in the campus. This allows network administrators to leverage powerful OpenFlow-enabled tools to help build robust campuses that are easy to troubleshoot and reconfigure on the fly to meet changing traffic conditions.

The N-series is a big step forward for Dell. Leaving PowerConnect behind shows that the Force10 acquisition is paying dividends through the whole network architecture. The redesign also comes at a critical time for software-defined networking. By integrating OpenFlow support into the access layer, Dell positions its products to take advantage of increased efficiency in the future.

Tom Hollingsworth, CCIE #29213, is a former VAR network engineer with 10 years of experience working with primary education and the problems they face implementing technology solutions. He has worked with wireless, storage, and server virtualization in addition to routing and ... View Full Bio
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