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OpenFlow Nascent But Making Solid Progress

The OpenFlow protocol for enabling software-defined networking has made progress, but to analyst Rohit Mehra, it’s still more of a concept than a reality. At last week's IDC Directions 2012 conference, in San Jose, Calif., he tried to put the buzz about OpenFlow in perspective.
"OpenFlow, at its core, I would say, remains a Twitter topic," said the director of enterprise communications infrastructure at the research firm. Across the pond in London, OpenFlow expert Greg Ferro took exception to Mehra’s seemingly dismissive attitude: "To say that OpenFlow is a Twitter thing is patently false," he said, then added a moment later, "but there’s an element of truth to it."

Like any technology standard, from TCP/IP to HTTP or from Flash to HTML5, the OpenFlow protocol may take years to become widely accepted and adopted as an alternative to traditional computer networking. Still, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), a mix of academics, networking vendors and enterprise network administrators, is very bullish on OpenFlow. There are some production networks actually using OpenFlow to enable software-defined networking (SDN), but they are a relative handful. "We’ve seen some really good use cases, especially in the smaller data centers and in education environments, but I’ve yet to see a lot of traction across the generic enterprise," said Mehra.

While acknowledging that development of OpenFlow is headed "in the right direction," Mehra said OpenFlow is just one protocol designed to enable SDN and that there may be others, including proprietary ones developed by network vendors. For instance, Cisco Systems, while a member of the ONF, hinted that it may develop its own SDN protocol.

But OpenFlow advocates can point to solid accomplishments with the protocol even as they acknowledge that it is a work in progress. "OpenFlow is the first step down a long road,” said Ferro, a consulting network architect and author of a report comparing OpenFlow to traditional networks that was published by InformationWeek, which, like Network Computing, is published by United Business Media. The OpenFlow 1.0 protocol, like version 1.0 of just about anything, has its flaws, he said, and members of the OpenFlow community are working to improve on it. But there are live production networks running on OpenFlow, and there are OpenFlow-based products on the market.

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