My perspective on ONS 2015, SDN & Open Networking

The 2015 Open Networking Summit (ONS) was hosted on June 14th to June 18th in Silicon Valley. It featured a rich set of speakers, open networking panels and a wide audience base comprised of network service providers, network hardware and software vendors, web giants and the academia.  ONS 2015 was the first of the fifth annual summit that I participated in.  To this onlooker it provided an insight into the future direction of networking.   The conference was a showcase of the solutions and challenges in achieving the goal of Software Defined Networking (SDN): to make the network programmable.    

As Chair of the IEEE Communications Society Santa Clara Valley (SCV) chapter, I’ve had the opportunity to host several technical sessions on Open Networking and also track the rapid pace of change towards SDN.  I am thrilled and enthused by the changes that SDN can provide.  It opens up significant opportunities for new and existing players.   However, I am equally skeptical of when and how SDN will become a mainstream technology, available to any enterprise data center or any end network consumer.  

The basic idea of Software Defined Networking is to make the network user programmable. Sounds simple? It depends on how one defines the network:  

  • Is it a home network, enterprise Local Area Network (LAN) network, ISP / telco / carrier network, a web giant network, Cloud Service Provider Network or a Wide Area Network (WAN)?
  • Is it a private network (located inside an enterprise and accessible only to an internal audience) or a public network (located on a premise not owned by the enterprise)?
  • Is it a physical network (network functionality achieved using dedicated hardware) or a virtual network (network functionality achieved by using software and white box hardware)?


Each network type has it’s own set of solution pieces offered by multiple vendors, which consist of hardware and software components that are provisioned and maintained by a Service Provider (data center, telco WAN, enterprise/campus, cloud computing/storage, etc).  Each network also has its own set of operational requirements.  There are a wide range of issues and concerns, including: security, availability, provisioning, power, cost and serviceability.   

The Open Network Foundation (ONF), which is progressing Open Flow based SDN, has a herculean task of bringing all these pieces under a single umbrella. Achieving SDN in an an “open,” “vendor agnostic” and “inter-operable” way is a challenge the purist can compare to finding extra terrestrial life.

Google’s Fellow and Technical Lead for Networking Amin Vahdat was an impressive keynote speaker at ONS2015.   For the first time in company’s history, Amin disclosed Google’s internal Data Center Network.  It’s design is based on the principles of Software Defined Networking, leverages CLOS topology, uses merchant silicon and has a single central administrative domain.  A few statistics that are indicative of this massive network are that it handles 3.5 billion search results per day and has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute!  Let’s pause for a minute and extrapolate, at roughly 5MB bandwidth consumption per minute for a 480p video – it translates into about 50 Petabytes of network traffic to watch the video content uploaded over a period of year (18000 years of uninterrupted viewing content stored and generated every year).

Microsoft’s Mark Russinovich, the CTO of the company’s Azure public cloud was also a keynote speaker.  He talked about how Microsoft has embraced SDN into the Azure wide area network.  That network can host millions of compute instances, and has exabyte scale storage and a Petabit capacity (Pbps) network.

Note that both Microsoft and Google are competing with Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services) – a cloud-compute service provider platform.

Given the scale out requirement to handle the data generated by the human race today, one thing is clear: SDN is not an option – it is the solution.  That’s because large networks that have to rapidly increase the number of users and the aggregate data capacity  (e.g. Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft Azure public cloud, Google’s customer facing and backbone network, NTT and AT&T WANs, etc) require a software based approach with centralized domain specific control to scale out. The traditional hop by hop routing with expensive, closed, proprietary routers won’t make the grade.

AT&T’s SVP John Donovan, was another keynote speaker. He highlighted the journey of transformation which AT&T is pursuing with Open Networking, SDN and Open Source software.  AT&T is on a grandiose mission to replace the traditional telephony network, based on Time Division Multiplexing (TDM)  to an all Ethernet network by 2020. 

The ONS2015 was spread over a week and had several panels on various important topics of SDN Adoption, Use Cases, Experiences, Hot Startups & VC investments, SDN WAN, Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), SDN for Optical Networks, OpenStack. The ONS2015 also had an expo floor, comprised of sponsor solution and demo booths from various companies like NEC, ADVA, AT&T, Dell, Brocade, Huawei, Cisco, and Broadcom.

There is a rapid pace of technology advancement, tremendous amount of energy and resources are being invested in this “second life of networking”. One pundit called it “a new epoch.”  While there is market fragmentation and chaos, I see that as a positive sign.  The industry is moving forward, asking new questions, facing new challenges.  Consolidation is far ahead.  Let’s continue to build and play by the ONF vision to build, promote and adopt SDN through open standards and open source software development. 

I will close by a quote from Kitty Pang (Network Architect, Alibaba).  It is bold and provocative, yet real: 

“We want to run faster and faster.  It does not matter if it’s hardware or software, open or closed, we choose low cost and high efficiency.”


Watch an insightful interview, where Alan Weissberger talks to ONF’s Dan Pitt on ONF’s path towards Open SDN:

Editor’s Note:

Saurabh Sureka is the Chair of IEEE ComSoc Santa Clara Valley (SCV), which is by far the leading ComSoc chapter in the world in terms of both membership and technical programs.   He joined the leadership team in 2011 as Treasurer and diligently continued to volunteer each year since then as a ComSocSCV officer.   Saurabh is a Sr Product Manager at Emulex (now Avago Technologies) in San Jose, CA.

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