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Practical Analysis: Join The OpenFlow Show On Next-Gen Campus Networks

InformationWeek Green - May 9 2011
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Art Wittmann

Long discussions about which standards matter, and when and how to adopt them, can be as painful as the standardization process itself. Even at IT social functions, you can tell the guy who lives for standards. He stands nervously on one side of the room wondering why everyone cuts him a wide berth. He's anxious to talk about the inevitability of IPv6 and the fact that he started testing HTML5 more than three years ago. Of course, we keep these people around because their knowledge is invaluable, and they're often right--if a bit early--about which standards will matter.

I once was that guy, but while I'm not as clairvoyant about standards as I once was--made soft by years away from the data center--I think the OpenFlow standard from the Open Networking Foundation is one to watch. OpenFlow seeks to create a vendor-independent way to manipulate the routing tables in campus area switches and routers.

One reason to do that is to enable more direct routes between systems. As more and more traffic moves between peer devices, as opposed to only between servers and clients, classic "north-south" routing is wasteful. Another reason is to allow for a logical view and management of your network that's separate from the physical view. Think of this as virtualization for your network. With such a logical view, you can direct and segregate traffic for business, security, and performance reasons alike.

One more reason to like OpenFlow is that it gets network vendors together to once again create functional and manageable heterogeneous networks. It bucks the trend toward proprietary systems and tools in a way that should be healthy for everyone.

OpenFlow isn't a panacea, however. For one thing, its use will require new switches. As you can bet, if it disturbs the status quo and requires different hardware, the entrenched networking 800-pound gorilla is less likely to be interested than up-and-comers. Early adherents include Arista, HP, Juniper, and NEC.

Cisco announced its participation in ONF just a few weeks ago. When asked in a company blog why it finally joined, Paul McNab, Cisco's VP for data center switching, said that as long as the standard remains extensible, he figures it's a good thing.

This reaction to standards has been perfected by Microsoft in its "embrace and extend" policy, proving that you really can love a standard to death. Cisco's membership may slow the process more than anything else, but depending on the functionality delivered, not supporting OpenFlow could be as dangerous for Cisco as not supporting server virtualization would have been for Intel or AMD. The risk is ending up with an irrelevant product line or costly and proprietary ways of doing the same things less expensive and more open products can do.

Keep OpenFlow in mind, and if you're at Interop in Las Vegas this week, ask your favorite vendors about it. And if you're on the geeky side, grab some popcorn, sit back, and watch the standards process theater between Cisco and the rest of the industry.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at [email protected].

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