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Crossroads for OpenFlow?

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

One ONF working group is the Forwarding Abstractions Working Group (FAWG). The FAWG is working on ways to describe OpenFlow capabilities that will make it easier for hardware abstraction layer (HAL) writers to implement OpenFlow in their silicon.

A major FAWG focus is Table Type Patterns (TTP). FAWG Chair Curt Beckmann says, “The (optional) usage of a TTP clarifies two things: what forwarding capabilities will be used in a given context, and how those capabilities can be controlled via OpenFlow.”

In short, TTPs are paving the way for easier consumption of complex OpenFlow directives, something that became an increasing challenge in OF versions after 1.0.

The FAWG is an illustration of how the ONF is working with the industry to make even complex OpenFlow capabilities easier to consume. While that cooperation is taking time, there is early fruit.

For example, Broadcom, a leading supplier of Ethernet silicon, announced a “next generation” open switch pipeline specification in December 2014 called OF-DPA 2.0. OF-DPA 2.0 uses TTPs, as well as many of the rich features found in OF 1.3.1. The point is that progress is being made that makes OpenFlow easier to use as a highly capable network programming tool able to articulate complex application demands.

OpenFlow’s future seems bright Research by this author into SDN use cases for enterprises reveals that, broadly speaking, companies are turning to the tech for traffic manipulation, security and network virtualization. What’s intriguing is the many solutions within these categories use OpenFlow as the programming tool in the majority of cases.

Interestingly, OpenFlow interoperability is also becoming something vendors can discuss without smirking. For example, NEC recently announced a partnership with Alcatel Lucent Enterprise in which NEC’s long-standing ProgrammableFlow controller uses OpenFlow to program ALE switch hardware.

With all of this in mind, I see OpenFlow’s future as bright indeed. OpenFlow is getting ready to be the great equalizer - a key element in the growing open networking movement.

By “great equalizer,” I mean that if OpenFlow is able to be used to consume complex, feature rich silicon at scale across many, if not all, hardware platforms, then the vertically integrated stack becomes less important. While networkers are used to network hardware that comes with special silicon, a companion CLI, and some sort of API, those components have always been tightly aligned. If OpenFlow breaks through in ubiquity, then the switching platform itself will matter less than the applications that run on top of it.

This plays well into open networking’s central theme of disaggregation, where an enterprise or service provider can choose a whitebox switch that runs a compatible network operating system of their choosing. This offers them operational choice, reduces vendor lock-in, and may well create a cost savings.


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