Computer networking is the heart of the cloud data centers that power the Internet. But those networks are complicated, and they aren’t as open as they could be.
Intel is attacking this problem — and its rival Cisco — with two new technologies in the coming year: software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV). The result, according to the world’s biggest chip maker, will be the unlocking of new revenue opportunities for cloud data center and telecom service providers.
Intel is investing and partnering in the networking ecosystem to make it happen. It is, for instance, announcing today at the Open Networking Summit that it has created a reference switch platform that the industry can use to implement applications that simplify networks. Intel also has a reference server platform for open networking as well and a DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch.
“This is a transformation within the network,” Torres said. “Proprietary networks have a high cost for provisioning in your networking infrastructure. We want an open ecosystem that separates the hardware from the software.”
Software-defined networks are simpler to operate. They allow system administrators to provision network connections on the fly instead of manually configuring things. With the rise of virtualization, it has become necessary for administrators to remotely configure their networks without having physical access to networking hardware. SDNs decouple the system that decides where traffic has to be sent (the control plane) from the underlying system that forwards traffic to the right place (the data plane).
Beyond simplifying networking, these abstractions enable new applications, such as network virtualization. Rivals such as Cisco or Ericsson may not see eye-to-eye with Intel on this, but Torres believes customers will get excited about it.
Abhi Dugar, an analyst at market researcher IDC, told VentureBeat, “The semiconductor value chain is shifting towards merchant silicon as opposed to custom designed switch silicon that Cisco gear is based on because developing [the custom chips] is becoming increasingly uncompetitive as development cost increases rapidly.”
Dugar added, “The stated goal of NFV is to consolidate network elements onto industry standard high volume servers, switches, and storage, which will necessarily be based on commercial silicon, although alternative commercial silicon, including system-on-a-chip solutions, from other vendors would also be acceptable.”
The makers of network appliances, such as firewalls or intrusion detection systems, have tried to simplify life for administrators by creating server appliances that can be plopped into the network. Those appliances bundle hardware and software together, and they aren’t necessarily easily configured for your own special situation. A single appliance could cost $20,000, and data center needs lots of them.
“They’re really expensive,” Torres said. “You have to do homework to make sure they stitch together.”
Administrators don’t know how these appliances function and how to mix and match them with other technologies. Those proprietary appliances have become part of the problem, not the solution, Torres said. They add to costs and delay the launch of new services.
With SDN and NFV (ideas that were born in academia), those appliances go away. Instead, companies adopt standard servers, switches, and storage. That equipment can be stored in a data center or in a customer’s office. That reduces the size of data centers and the energy consumed by them, reducing overall operating costs.
Intel provides all of the different pieces of standard hardware to make SDN and NFV happen. Administrators will be able to use external software to program the appliances that are typically bundled, hardware and software together. Application creators will be able to create hardware and software separately. That allows the movement from proprietary networks to open networks that don’t lock customers into specific vendors. Or that’s the idea, at least, when SDNs and NFV become universally adopted.
The result will eventually be that, rather than create a new network appliance with both hardware and software elements, the networking companies can simply create software applications running on top of the standardized network. The need for expensive custom hardware, such as Cisco’s equipment, goes away.
Rob Enderle, analyst at the Enderle Group, said, “I would have thought that they were competitors, but Cisco and IBM are launch partners. It looks like Cisco is using Intel to get ahead of what likely will be a massive reduction of costs associated with switching. IBM has had a long term relationship with Intel and this fits their service and software oriented strategy; it appears Cisco is on this same page now. Cisco in particular appears to be planning to use this technology to resist losing customers (given they are the largest in the space) during the move to Software Defined Networks and protect their base. It is very unusual for a dominant entrenched vendor to make such a move, but it is also critical that they do.”
Intel is embracing the standards-based OpenFlow networking platform as part of its solution. Supporters include Google, Big Switch Networks, and Facebook, all of whom have adopted the OpenFlow protocol in their data center technology. The Open Networking Summit was created to promote SDN standards. Torres said the telecom carrier Telefonica plans to work with NEC and Intel to implement an open network.
“This is all about moving the needle on what is networking and what is computing,” said Jennifer Pigg, an analyst at the Yankee Group. “Core and metro service provider routers will remain on specialized hardware for foreseeable future (which in this market is five years). Everything else is up for grabs: enterprise, data center, access routers – will all benefit from SDN. “
She added, “We will see more storage and compute vendors move into traditional networking markets buoyed by the wave of cloud, virtualization, SDN, and NFV. Intel is laying the keel for these new vendors. Traditional vendors are threatened, but Cisco is trying its best in the Daylight consortium to exert control over this market.”