A group of telecommunications giants have formed a consortium which aims to promote software-defined networking, a new approach that the Open Networking Foundation claims can increase network functionality while lowering operating costs.
The Foundation has some big names behind it: the board of directors is formed of bigwigs from Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo, while member companies include networking giants Broadcom, Cisco, Force10, HP, Juniper, NEC, and Netgear.
The members are also putting their money where their mouths are: according to the Foundation's membership guidelines, all member companies must pay an annual fee of $30,000 to join the esteemed ranks of the good and great from the world of networking.
The Foundation claims to be attempting to popularise a form of software-defined networking originally proposed in an academic white paper from 2008 entitled OpenFlow: Enabling Innovation in Campus Networks, based on work by Nick McKeown, Tom Anderson, Hari Balakrishnan, Guru Parulkar, Larry Peterson, Jennifer Rexford, Scott Shenker, and Jonathan Turner from universities across the US.
In the white paper, the OpenFlow technology is described as: "a way for researchers to run experimental protocols in the networks they use every day." Based on an advanced form of Ethernet switch, OpenFlow allows researchers to modify the operation of the switch on a fundamental level - to test out new protocols, for example - without needing direct access to the often-proprietary low-level switch hardware itself.
It's a novel suggestion, but one that the companies involved in the Open Networking Foundation believe stretches beyond the world of research. By creating switches which can be modified on the fly, network operators can fine-tune their infrastructure to work in the most efficient way for their requirements. A company specialising in streaming video, for example, will have far different requirements to a company specialising in multiplayer gaming.
The Foundation's goals are simple: to encourage as many network vendors as possible to support the OpenFlow standard, making it a vendor-agnostic, cross-platform means of modifying the fundamental operation of networking hardware. It's a major project, but the group already counts many major players in the industry among its membership.
"Software-defined networking will allow networks to evolve and improve more quickly than they can today," claimed Urs Hoelzle, senior VP of engineering at Google and the ONF's president. "Over time, we expect SDN will help networks become both more secure and more reliable."
"With broad industry support from technology leaders and networking experts, the ONF brings new opportunities and flexibility to the future of networking," agreed Jonathan Heiliger, VP of technical operations at Facebook and an ONF founding member. "We’re actively encouraging new members to join us in this endeavour."
There's no denying that sysadmins and network gurus will find the idea of a completely configurable infrastructure interesting, but with membership costing $30,000 a year the Foundation will have to work to ensure that smaller players in the industry don't get left behind.