Sunday, March 29, 2015

Blueprint: Ready to Evolve with SDN and Open Alternatives?

by Kumar Srikantan and Dave Ginsburg, Pluribus Networks

One of the great promises of SDN is its programmability and interoperability.   Both are required if the evolution from legacy approaches in the way our networks are deployed and operated is to succeed.

I’ll first look at programmability, the software and applications, and a great comparison is the evolution of the phone.  For those old enough to experience the old black handset, the phone was a phone, and nothing more.  Fast-forward to early cell networks, and many of us, myself included, carried around flip-phones, good for texting but little else.

With the Blackberry, our lives were finally tethered to the network through email and scheduling.  But realizing its true promise as a platform was only made possible by the iPhone and Android, supporting hundreds of thousands of applications, the value of the device increasing by orders of magnitude, a Metcalf’s Law for mobility.   This is a third dimension beyond the ‘n2’ advantage of simple connectivity.

The Smartphone Revolution

In the smartphone revolution, flash storage, compute and “wireless / cellular” networking came together with a foundation based on a couple different smartphone platforms, IOS and Android, which play roles in mobile similar to the role of OpenStack in networking.  Both accelerated the “software defined” transition in the mobile world.  I am talking about software-defined-cameras, software-defined-GPS, and software-defined-maps – effectively virtualization of functions that were previously defined by single-function, aka-carte offerings etc.   In essence, the smartphone is a converged digital platform.

The advent of converged network computing appliances is creating a situation in networking similar to what the coming of the smartphone did for mobility. No longer are you just concerned with making a call (or basic L2/L3 connectivity for networking) - you are now thinking about the software and applications you can run on the platform and the capabilities that they bring.

The Need for a Network Hypervisor

The key to unlocking this value is an SDN operating system leveraging open source technology that brings together compute-network-storage into a converged operating system.  It is an offering that virtualizes not only compute and storage, but also the network (a Type 1 network hypervisor) for operational simplicity through automation.  At Pluribus, we call this the Netvisor, but given the value of this approach, we expect others to follow in our steps.

Netvisor SDN Operating System – A Distributed Network Hypervisor

It unleashes the power of the network, forming a ‘fabric’ that becomes a platform for enabling the applications of the future in a software-defined way.  And to be fair, although we talk about both Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android at the OS and application layer, when looking at hardware, Android is a much better analogy to were we are going given the choice of vendors and the various form-factors and costs.

Today’s Reality

But unfortunately, today’s reality is very different, despite some recent vendor announcements on software interoperability.   Though we’ve spoken about applications and programmability for a few years now, beginning with early OpenFlow pilots, networking gear hasn’t really changed.  Sure, vendors have added some flow programmability, but common ‘white-box’ switches offer only basic L2 and L3 and box-by-box configuration.  These are not platforms for the CIO or cloud architect to truly differentiate and keep up with advances in other data center technologies.  The network is stuck in the Blackberry-era.

Enter the Server-Switch

We realized that a converged SDN platform requires an application-centric approach to infrastructure that fuses server and switch capabilities with a high-performance control architecture.   Recently, the value of fusing network and compute was evident in the Facebook Wedge announcement, and ODMs are beginning to deliver platforms with these capabilities.  But just server switch hardware is not sufficient if not driven by a sophisticated SDN operating system as described earlier.

And this is not just a science project, as some have made SDN out to be.  At the recent ONUG conference in NYC, capabilities enabled by a converged overlay and underlay approach – single point of management, analytics, network virtualization, and application hosting – were key requirements from CIOs.

A Word on Interoperability

Jumping to interoperability, the premise in SDN is that vendors must take the best of open source, adding to it where required, contributing where they can, and avoiding lock-in.  Server-switches and converged SDN platforms offer this openness, abstracting the open hardware from the network applications, the choice through ‘disaggregation’ we read so much about.  This approach contrasts to the last two decades of networking where vendors have built fortresses around their hardware and software and where CIOs are tied to legacy network vendor hardware refresh cycles.

The elements that are converging to permit SDN to deliver on its promise, finally evolving the network from the Blackberry era, are therefore:

  • An SDN operating system with network virtualization, a distributed control plane, based on open standards, and abstracting the hardware from a host of network applications.
  • Adoption of merchant silicon and open hardware architectures.

About the Authors

Kumar Srikantan is President and CEO of Pluribus Networks. Previously, Kumar was VP/GM of HW Engineering for the Enterprise Networking Business at Cisco where he was responsible for the HW engineering execution of Cisco’s Enterprise Networking portfolio. Kumar brings 25 years of diverse leadership and operational experience in the technology industry that spans development, marketing, and engineering across computing, silicon and communications industries.

 Dave Ginsburg is Chief Marketing Officer at Pluribus. He brings over 25 years of experience to his role as CMO, having served as CMO at Extreme Networks and VP of Marketing at InnoPath Software. Prior to that he held the role of VP of Marketing at Lucent Technologies, responsible for all aspects of Lucent's Carrier Ethernet marketing, product strategy and business operations. Prior to Lucent, he served as Sr. VP of Marketing and Product Management at Riverstone Networks as well as VP of Marketing at Allegro Networks and VP of Product Marketing at Nortel Networks in addition to a variety of positions with Cisco, Alcatel and the U.S. Army. About Pluribus

About Pluribus Networks

Pluribus Networks delivers software-defined networking as an open application platform for today’s data centers. The company’s flagship product, Netvisor®, is the industry’s first distributed network hypervisor operating system, converging compute, network, storage and virtualization with an open, programmable approach. Our customers realize tangible and immediate business benefits while protecting their existing network investments. For more information, visit

Got an idea for a Blueprint column?  We welcome your ideas on next gen network architecture.
See our guidelines.