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Networking at the Crossroads.

Jul 1, 2014

Stu Bailey of Infoblox looks at the future of networking.

The network is dead; long live the network! Software-defined networking (SDN) is so disruptive, in my view, that much of hardware-based networking will be replaced during the next few years with new architectures almost unrecognizable to today’s network engineers.


The biggest question in my mind is not if this transformation will take place, but when. And the biggest obstacle isn’t technology—it is human nature and the self-protecting tendency of established institutions to deflect fundamental change.

True SDN only happens when the data plane and the control plane are completely separate, with all of the control plane and much of the data plane consisting of independent software. All forms of networking hardware—switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers, WAN optimizers, etc.—cease to exist. In this new epoch, there will also be no need for expensive and proprietary ASICs or NPUs. Standard CPUs, available at much lower cost because of their vastly greater volumes, will suffice.

Off-the-shelf servers, perhaps with more ports than found on current servers, will serve as the physical platform for the data plane—performing network operations as needed in addition to their traditional compute chores. These interconnected servers will form a mesh, mapping out connections among themselves, and be managed as distributed systems by the control plane.

The control plane itself will likely be a free, open-source distributed operating system, in the same way Linux is at the heart of today’s servers, because customers will reject any attempt to lock them in through closed, proprietary control planes owned by a single vendor.

Most of the commercial value in SDN will therefore come from creating applications that run on top of the control plane. These applications will make network management easier, more efficient, more secure, and more powerful.

Such profound change won’t happen easily, and won’t happen overnight. Some established networking companies will evolve; some will disappear. At the same time, proverbial “two engineers in a garage” start-ups will burst on the scene and redefine the networking landscape in ways no one can predict.

Until then, networking incumbents are likely to advocate approaches that appear to move toward SDN but are really more about “paving the cow paths”—using new technology to slightly improve existing processes rather than fundamentally changing the system. Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) certainly has value. But a software-defined switch that only serves as a drop-in replacement for a hardware switch—while perhaps cost-effective—doesn’t move the industry much closer to true SDN.

Networking now stands at crossroads reminiscent of the early 1980s, when personal computers first moved from hobbyists into the workplace. Established manufacturers of minicomputers such as Data General, Digital Equipment Corporation, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, and Wang Laboratories initially dismissed PCs as underpowered toys and continued to bet on the long-term value of their differentiated computing hardware.

PCs triumphed, of course. Not because there were faster or more powerful than minicomputers, but because they were inexpensive and allowed anyone to create compelling new applications. No minicomputer manufacturer survived this upheaval unscathed; all of them either shut down or were merged into companies that dominated in the new PC era.

To be sure, the SDN revolution is in its earliest days. There are still many missing pieces that need to be built before SDN is ready to replace networking hardware in production environments. But it’s not too soon to get involved. After all, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University in 1975 to start Microsoft—six years before the IBM PC was introduced—because he reportedly believed he couldn’t wait any longer to seize first-mover advantage.

In that spirit, my research team at Infoblox and I are contributing software to FlowForwarding.org, which is working on free, open-source SDN applications based on OpenFlow® and Open Networking Foundation standards. We aren’t looking to commercialize these efforts. Instead, we’re hoping to contribute in a small way to accelerating the arrival of true SDN. We encourage you to join us, or go your own way in creating something new. SDN is full of unexplored territory, waiting for brave explorers to stake a claim.

—Stu Bailey, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Infoblox

Bailey defines the technological vision of Infoblox, a global leader in network control solutions. Before founding the company in 1999, Bailey held a five-year stint as technical lead for the Laboratory for Advanced Computing/National Center for Data Mining at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he led teams in developing advanced distributed data architectures.