SDN Makes Inroads Into WiFi

Software-defined networking is beginning to show up in the WLAN world with SDN-related developments from Meru, Extreme, and others.

July 2, 2014

3 Min Read
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Can you think of two hotter topics than software-defined networking and WiFi? Both are redefining the way enterprises do business and will have profound impacts on the evolution of networking for well into the future. At the same time, SDN and WiFi aren’t frequently coupled all that tightly in conversation. That's beginning to change, as synergies between the two technologies are starting to emerge.

Before we cover specific SDN-related developments in the WLAN world, let me discuss how I see things playing out, more or less, over time. SDN can have a lot of meanings, but I'm talking about the generic model where the control plane is separated from the data plane of various network boxes, and a single controller leverages the likes of OpenFlow and countless APIs to create new functionality out of disparate network components.

With our legacy management and monitoring systems still in play, SDN becomes a second world to live in concurrently, with a trickle of apps being enabled by the new magic. Once a few truly killer apps emerge, SDN will gather more steam. We’ll find that where “unified networking” used to require buying matched hardware from a single vendor, SDN will let us mix and match, and the logos on the components will become less important than the fact that they are SDN-enabled using common protocols like OpenFlow.

Then, one glorious day, we’ll find that SDN actually marginalizes current NMS functionality and can run the network environment itself, along with all of the apps in use -- or something like that. It’ll be kind of messy trying to make sense of it all, especially where the hyper-complex world of WLAN is concerned. Still, we’re seeing real examples of SDN taking root in the wireless industry. The floodgates are hardly open by any stretch, but a handful of vendors are showcasing initial successes with SDN.

Meru Networks recently announced that the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) awarded it the WLAN industry’s first Certificate of Conformance through the ONF OpenFlow Testing Program. This means that an SDN controller now can talk OpenFlow to APIs on Meru controllers, and if whatever switching in use is also SDN-enabled, it can do things like configure end-to-end QoS for Microsoft Lync outside of Meru’s NMS or the switch configuration management server.

Meru also is beating the drum of SDN for app developers, trying to build a community of SDN-savvy app writers that can help the company build its SDN story.

Meanwhile, Extreme Networks last week unveiled its SDN platform. The OpenDaylight-based controller is core to Extreme’s fledgling SDN initiatives, with open APIs likely to become a standard feature on more of its LAN and WLAN products over time. As with Meru, Extreme Networks is counting on growing interest by third-party app developers to support its SDN platform. The company has an “SDN Innovation Challenge” coming this fall, which pays cash prizes up to $5,000 for selected apps.

There are other examples of the growing presence of SDN in wireless systems. For instance, Aruba Networks is in the game with SDN-enabled switches and WLAN components, with promises of optimized traffic flows. Given that Aruba gear is rebranded by Alcatel-Lucent and Dell, those product lines also come along for the ride.

Cisco's enterprise SDN strategy has started to  touch wireless with its latest Catalyst switch/WLAN controller combinations, as well as the company’s attempt to hold significant sway over the greater future of SDN by pursuing the RFC process for SDN API standardization. Right now, API development is a bit loose; Cisco wants its own vision for SDN APIs to become the recognized standard.

These developments are just the start of what will be an increasingly discussed topic in enterprise WLAN. Part of our collective challenge is that SDN isn’t standardized yet. WiFi is already complicated, but to survive working in enterprise-grade WLAN as a profession, sooner or later we’ll all have to at least get familiar with the likes of OpenFlow, north and southbound APIs, and the fact that tomorrow’s WiFi will look different from today’s WiFi. We should start preparing for that transition now.

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