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Crossroads for OpenFlow?

Ethan Banks | Jan. 8, 2016
Does OpenFlow have a significant role to play in SDN, long-term?

Others might point out that OpenFlow sells some hardware short, in that OpenFlow as a standardized interface can’t expose every capability a given chunk of silicon might have. After all, vendors like Cisco and Juniper differentiate themselves by their silicon. That is also true, but this doesn’t change the fact that all networks have a root set of common functions related to traffic forwarding and access control, no matter the silicon in question.

So, if OpenFlow is just a tool, is there any particular reason to emphasize it?

SDN in its early days was excited about tools, because SDN could not move beyond ideas without them. As an industry, we’ve started the process of moving beyond the tools and into the realization of what those tools can bring to networking. And thus, the focus is beginning to shift into use cases, products, and operationalization of the software defined network. Put another way, the average networking consumer isn’t buying SDN or OpenFlow. Rather, as SDN moves slowly into the mainstream, consumers are buying the capabilities these tools bring.

How vendors are using OpenFlow

As an industry, we know now that SDN means more than OpenFlow. We also know that software programming the network doesn’t have to use OpenFlow to get the job done. OpenFlow is just one tool among many that has proven useful to the software defined paradigm. But let’s not make the mistake of putting OpenFlow out to pasture, or minimizing the impact that the tool has had. For example, vendors are using OpenFlow in several commercial products. Here are just a few examples.

  • HP uses OpenFlow in several products. HP’s VAN controller leverages the protocol to program network switches in applications such as its Network Optimizer, which offers dynamic QoS programming for Microsoft Skype for Business (formerly Lync).
  • Brocade’s Vyatta Controller runs with OpenDaylight code and uses OpenFlow as one of the programming options.
  • Even Cisco offers some OpenFlow support on a limited number
    of its switching platforms.
  • And lest we forget, OpenFlow is an important tool in Open vSwitch, which continues to grow in popularity.

We could cite more examples, but the key is to recognize that many vendors are using OpenFlow either in an SDN application or supporting it in a hardware platform. Still, OpenFlow is not ubiquitous. As an industry, we’re not at a point where we can assume OpenFlow availability in a given switch platform. Even when OpenFlow is a supported feature, we can’t be certain which specific features are supported, or whether a supported feature will be useful at scale.

To address these concerns, and make OpenFlow more predictable going forward, the ONF has created a variety of working groups, communities and proposals.


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