There's a new way of datacentre networking coming down the road: software-defined networking (SDN). Powered by the Open Flow protocol, the idea is that the control plane -- the intelligence that routes packets -- is separated from the data plane -- the mechanism that actually shunts packets from one port to another. If the plans of its proponents come to pass, the biggest loser is likely to be Cisco.
All this came out of a keynote presentation from Dan Pitt, executive director and sole full-time employee of the Open Network Foundation (ONF) and subsequent discussions at NetEvents, held in Garmisch and overlooked by the Zugspitz, Germany's highest mountain.
The concept of SDN has been around for a while now -- HP recently announced hardware to support it -- and some large telcos, notably Deutsche Telekom, are already using it.
The advantages, according to Pitt, are that you need only one operating system instance running per network. This then performs the control functions that are currently performed by multiple instances, one in every switch.
Such a design can lighten the processing load, giving control to the centre, and allowing third parties to write applications for that device. These network apps might be specific to each business application, which would bind the network to business goals tighter than ever before. Switches and routers, Pitt said, then become simple packet forwarding devices.
"Telcos have been doing this for 100 years but it's new to data networking," Pitt said. "Instead of OSPF in every device, you put it in the central OS."
Member companies that have signed up for SDN and who are on the board of directors include large end users such as Google, Yahoo, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom and NTT.
"No vendors are allowed on the board," Pitt said. "Only the board can found a working group, approve standards and appoint chairs of working groups. Vendors can be on the groups but not chair them. So users are in the driving seat."
Other member companies not on the board include chip and switch vendors, including Cisco, and others including Citrix, Dell, VMware and Infoblox.
"In future, networking will become just an integral part of computing, using same tools as the rest of computing," Pitt said. "Enterprises will get out of managing plumbing, operators will become software companies, IT will add more business value, and there will be more network startups from Generation Y."
Pitt was asked what impact this architectural shift would have on network performance. He said that a 30,000-user campus could be supported by a four-year-old Dell PC.
Meanwhile, if you're Cisco -- which is keeping what appears to be a watching brief -- you'd wonder if your core business is just about to disappear.