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Interop Premieres New Technology; Everyone Wins

One of the coolest displays I saw at Interop was not in Start-up City nor in the Czech Republic zone. It wasn't the Lamborghini that Securent rolled onto the floor, nor was it the Barracuda Bus. It was the fiber backplane that HP brought out from its R&D facility and had running as a proof of concept, as well as the number of vendors that had products--nearly all proof of concepts--in the InteropNet Openflow lab. Staying awake is hard after sitting through the sixth top-of-rack switch of the day. Showcases like HP's and Openflow's should be an important part of any trade show because they remind us why what we do is cool and fun.

Greg Ferro has a really good write-up on HP's optical backplane. I'd encourage you to read the story because Ferro provides a lot of detail, but the short version is that the optical backplane is a passive structure a little more than 30 inches. The proof of concept currently uses a single light color, but it's possible that the number of colors--and therefore the capacity--could go as high as 64 colors and 2Tb of capacity. Productizing the optical backplane is some years away, but the proof of concept at the show is an indicator of where chassis technology is going.

There are two important aspects to highlight here. The first one is that HP brought out a senior-level research director, Charles Clarke. He gets excited when he talks about the optical backplane, and it is hard not to share in the excitement. He's excited that the PoC works and where the research is going. He patiently explains not only the benefits of the research but also the hurdles HP still has to jump over to bring it to market (everything from increasing capacity to designing reliable, cost-effective interconnects). I didn't check out his legs, but he is my kind of booth babe. The second aspect is that this isn't a product yet, and rather than having boring old slideware on a screen, HP trotted out a modified HP E8212 with the ZL modules plugged into the optical backplane. Many vendors large and small are notoriously tight-lipped about research and product development, so to bring out a working prototype is astounding.

You can almost feel the Openflow hype machine getting cranked up, can't you? While Openflow won't solve all of your problems, cure cancer or make you attractive to whomever you want to be attractive to, it is an interesting protocol that can be very disruptive to switching in general and provide some truly unique benefits that we can't achieve easily today.

At Interop, 16 vendors--Big Switch, Broadcom, Brocade, Citrix, Dell, Extreme, Fulcrum, HP, IBM, Juniper, NEC, Netgear, Net Optics, Opnet, and Pronto--participated in the lab. I haven't checked with all the vendors, but I am pretty sure Big Switch, NEC and Pronto are the only participants that are shipping products today. The rest are in development. At a time when plug fests (events where vendors bring equipment and try to interoperate and iron out interpretations of the standards) are closed-door affairs for fear of bad press, a public interoperability lab shows a strong commitment to interoperation.

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