The Big Switch to OpenFlow

The leader of the Stanford University team that built OpenFlow explains why open source matters for networking and how OpenFlow is the underpinnings of next wave in networking: software defined networking (SDN).

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Apr 16, 2012
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In 2010, Guido Appenzeller left his professor's job at Stanford University, to start up a new company that would expand the OpenFlow networking technology he helped to create. This week, Appenzeller is taking the stage as a presenter at the Open Networking Summit in a session titled, Opening Up Your Network to Cloud Innovation with SDN.

OpenFlow got its start as a research project led by Appenzeller while at Stanford. OpenFlow enables software defined networking (SDN) for programmable networks.

"It's a huge surprise, I think I grossly under estimated how quickly this would all develop," Appenzeller told EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet "When I joined Stanford initially, OpenFlow was purely a research effort and two years later when I left Stanford, every major networking vendor in the world had attended one of the OpenFlow standards meetings."

In in recent years, changes in compute infrastructure thanks to server virtualization have dramatically altered IT management models and operational flexibility. In contrast, networking has not kept up.

"Networking today in many cases in the enterprise is the bottleneck, where the lack of flexibility prevents you from doing other things, specifically in the data center," Appenzeller said. "Software defined network is a fantastic technology for making the network more flexible."

Today, if you buy a networking switch from a large vendor, it's not easy to modify the software running on it. What SDN enables switch owners to do is extend the functionality of the network. SDN also provides open APIs that enables orchestration of applications on the network.

In Appenzeller's view, for SDN to be successful it requires open protocols, open APIs and open source code. Appenzeller's startup company Big Switch Networks is currently in the process of building a commercial OpenFlow controller.

"The controller is a centralized control plane that allows you to orchestrate your network infrastructure," Appenzeller said. "The base layer of the control is open source."

Big Switch has yet to officially announced their OpenFlow controller, though Appenzeller noted that it will be based on the open source Floodlight project. Appenzeller is confident that OpenFlow and SDN will move forward in the months and years ahead.OpenFlow Hub logo

"If you would have asked me when I left Stanford what my number one concern was, it was whether vendors would support OpenFlow," Appenzeller said. "At this point that's a risk that is not on the table."

Large vendors including HP and Juniper have already publicly announced their support of OpenFlow. Appenzeller cautioned though that it's not yet known exactly how the industry will evolve and whether or not there will be a rich ecosystem in the future. Overall, as a trend, SDN is now happening.

"Software defined network is an idea whose time has come," Appenzeller said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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