OpenFlow in the real world: Carriers, clouds and more

Yes, it's a switch. But this one has OpenFlow inside!

The shift in networking and the hype around the OpenFlow protocol has led to a lot of confusion and overinflation of what OpenFlow can do. To get a bit more grounded in reality, I spoke with Don Clark, director of business development at NEC. NEC is a vendor deploying switches that use OpenFlow and a member of the Open Networking Foundation, the group spearheading the standardization of programmable networking.

Programmable networks are about agility and automation

For those just tuning in, OpenFlow is a protocol that allows a server to tell a switch what to do. It’s revolutionary only in that most switches historically have had their own proprietary software inside the switch telling it what to do. With OpenFlow and other programmable networking efforts, the decisions on how to build out a network and how to move packets is taken away from the box that actually moves the packets, and placed on a server. Now, someone can program the network independently of the gear inside the data center and the software on the switch.

It’s a simple idea with big implications for the industry. Clark says that since unveiling OpenFlow-enabled switches at Interop in May, NEC has learned a few things. Much like server consolidation was a large driver behind virtualization in the early years, software-defined networking will have its own impetus, and Clark believes that will be the ability to take the people and time out of network configuration. This allows folks operating clouds or platforms as a service to be more agile and respond to changes in their underlying infrastructure without changing and reconfiguring the network — resulting in fewer errors and improved speed.

“Right now the network equipment does a lot, but with OpenFlow it allows us to ask the hardware to do much less than it does today,” Clark says. “So moving it out from the equipment to the application stack, then the equipment’s job is simplified, and then on the controller side, networking becomes an application that is integrated with other business processes in the application stack.”

Clouds and carriers are low-hanging fruit

Today, Clark says most of NEC’s customers have a cloud or are building a cloud and want to offer the same kind of automation on the network side as they do on the cloud side. Clark says this can lead to faster provisioning (which is why most people are looking at programmable networks today) to follow-the-sun application models that could move applications from data center to data center based on reducing the amount of compute energy consumed. I’d love to see companies build out models and methods for helping companies like Google (s goog) or Facebook send low-priority compute jobs to places where they could be completed using renewable energy.

Programmable networks could mean less downtime.

Clark adds that programmable networks, such as those enabled by OpenFlow, could boost security, because the network configuring will be done by a computer, rather than mapped out manually by an engineers. It’s analogous to adding up all the numbers in a spreadsheet column yourself as opposed to putting in a formula and letting the computer do it. The human still directs the process, but they don’t have to implement every single painstaking step of it.

So far, Clark says cloud providers are the most keen on using OpenFlow, but carriers represent another potentially huge market. The ONF counts Deutsche Telekom and Verizon (s vz) on its executive board. Clark says the carriers are looking at adding OpenFlow to add functionality to their networks that today they get from several independent gear providers from Cisco (s csco) and Juniper (s jnpr) to Sandvine and Acme Packet (s apkt), for example. “On the service provider side, we’ve seen a lot of unique apps that they are looking to deploy OpenFlow with,” Clark says. “A lot of the equipment carriers’ use is specialty equipment and they are excited about general purpose equipment that can handle specialty tasks.” This could disrupt the gear market.

The shift from selling switches to selling services

Because NEC has a business selling switches, it’s in a similar position to Cisco, Juniper or other vendors that might find their margins eroded by the emergence of what would become commodity switches. Clark isn’t as concerned about that, because NEC is busy building services, features and add-ons to its gear to accommodate the growth of OpenFlow and programmable networking. “We have a solutions practice and we’re very excited about what this networking model allows solutions providers to do,” Clark said. Namely, he’s trading high-margin switching for high-margin consulting, a tack that many in the open source world have tried. For example, look at what Rackspace (s rax) is trying to do with OpenStack.

And NEC plans to give back to the ONF as it develops features and extensions to help its customers. Clark said NEC has already built some tools and wants to make those available through the ONF as extensions to the OpenFlow standard. For NEC, OpenFlow is a means to help build a new model for networking and new revenue stream based around products and services that take advantage of that new model, whereas for its customers, it will likely be a way to add new services or rein in costs of providing web or carriers offerings to their own customers.