OpenFlow: “Pulling networking into the application stack”

April 18, 2011 - 0 Comments

Recently, we announced our participation in the Open Networking Foundation (ONF).  As you may know, ONF is focused on defining a software interface enabling the programming of how packets are forwarded through a switched network as defined in the OpenFlow Switch Specification. Beyond this, ONF is also focused on developing an abstracted software interface that management tools can access.  At the end of the day, ONF is looking to advance OpenFlow and and make it easier for customers to fine-tune, manage and adapt their networks.  In addition to Cisco, the organization includes Broadcom, Brocade, Ciena, Citrix, Dell, Ericsson, Force10, HP, IBM, Juniper, Marvell, NEC, Netgear, Verizon, and VMware.

I sat down with Paul McNab, VP/CTO of the Data Center Switching and Services Group, who is leading this effort at Cisco, to get some answers on what this all means.

Omar Sultan: Paul, many industry pundits did not expect us to do this and their reactions were kinda entertaining. So, why did Cisco decide to do this?

Paul McNab: Networking’s success and Cisco’s success has been built on standards-based innovation.  We see engagement with ONF as a natural extension of that.  Many of our most strategic customers are engaged in this effort so this also allows us an opportunity to collaborate more closely with them in developing their next generation of solutions.  As app development evolves with frameworks like Hadoop and MapReduce, network infrastructure needs to keep pace.

We feel the extensibility and accessibility that these APIs provide will allow our customers to extract even more value out of their Cisco investments. Interestingly, we have been doing something like this for a few years now.  Our data center products (Nexus, MDS, UCS) all have an open XML API and a fully published schema that has given both customers and ISVs programmatic access to our infrastructure–we are glad to see an extension of that concept with this initiative.

OS: Don’t you worry that the OpenFlow standard will commoditize switching or undermine our technical advantages?

PM: As long as vendor extensibility is maintained in the OpenFlow switch specification, we view this as a positive development.  First of all, we see standards as a way to drive faster adoption of the best new ideas—history has proven this to be true and we expect the trend to continue.  In terms of inhibiting our ability to bring innovation to market, we expect the opposite to be true.  The API will allow customers to better and more sophisticated advantage of the capabilities in our solutions.  The easier those innovations are to access, the greater value they will hold. More importantly, it opens the way for applications and management tools to directly access and leverage our technologies that is a critical and positive shift for the industry. The net result is that networking can be pulled into the application stack, instead of apps continuing to simply ride atop the infrastructure.

OS: OK, so the question that everyone wants to know: when will we see Cisco products compliant with the OpenFlow switch specification?

PM: At this point, I prefer not to pre-announce what we have in the works.  Once OpenFlow evolves into full-fledged blueprint we’ll provide more details, so stay tuned.

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