HP Labs Reveals Work On Next-Generation Network Technology

Hewlett-Packard invited reporters and industry analysts into its HP Labs research facility on Tuesday to share work it’s doing to make IT networks faster, more scalable and more reliable, including replacing copper wire computer cables with optical interconnects. The open house at HP Labs comes as the technology giant goes after the network equipment business of industry leader Cisco Systems and as HP portrays itself as an innovator and not just a low-cost alternative to Cisco.

HP Labs researchers detailed work they are contributing to an industry standard project it calls OpenFlow networking, which aims to add a "control layer" to an IT network between the existing network management layer and the physical infrastructure of network switches, routers and other IT assets. The control layer would reprogram switches to identify certain data packets and take specific action based on that identity. An FTP packet can be treated one way, while an HTTP packet can be treated another. The control layer intelligence would be able to reconfigure switches more quickly than a technician doing a tedious command line interface (CLI) reconfiguration, basically rewriting lines of code, says Charles Clark, a distinguished technologist in HP's Networking business unit.

"In this system, what we’re able to do is more dynamically change the network through an OpenFlow interface in order to program the network," Clark says, adding that OpenFlow capability can be introduced to an existing network infrastructure. "We can deploy new functionality in the management and control plane layer that causes those devices to do something different than they did before."

HP is a member of the Open Network Foundation, a collaboration of multiple tech companies whose mission is to improve networking through software-defined solutions. Leaders of the foundation are Deutsche Telekom, Google, Facebook, Verizon, Microsoft and Yahoo. The networking industry is also represented; besides HP; Cisco, Brocade and Juniper are members.

Also at HP Labs, researchers are studying optical technology as a replacement for copper wires within networks to dramatically improve bandwidth and scalability, says Mike Tan, distinguished technologist in HP's Intelligent Infrastructure Lab.

If an IT staff wants to increase network capacity to 25 Gbps from, say, 10 Gbps, they would have to reconfigure the electrical backplane in each traditional copper wire-based switch. "It needs to be reoptimized, redesigned and then retweaked," Tan says.