A lot of people have talked extensively about OpenFlow making significant changes to the networking business. In particular, many writers have focussed on the possibility that OpenFlow enables a choice of using low cost network equipment instead of the expensive networking equipment that we use today.
Well, that’s highly unlikely.
You need to understand that the networking business today is mostly a software business. Over the last ten years, networking vendors have moved steadily away from the focus on hardware and have been placing more and more emphasis on their software features. Indeed, Cisco has never wavered from its marketing pitch that they are software company in the fifteen years I’ve worked with them. And Juniper is constantly talking about the value of the Junos software and it’s interface.
It’s true that if you think back a decade or so, say around 2000, that networking vendors produced a lot of custom hardware. Technologies like BRI ISDN services, E1/T1 interfaces, ATM, Frame Relay, SMDS, Token Ring and FDDI are just a few of the physical products that are now gone. All that remains is Ethernet.
There are some remnants of the old carrier networks, most carriers that are cash strapped and unable to upgrade their networks. Mostly in countries that have large geographical areas or poor telecommunications laws such as Australia (geography), India (legal) and US (both). But for most people, the carriers deliver Ethernet services to the corporate office.
Billion dollar companies don’t usually miss the obvious and have moved to enhance their software to provide customer value. That is, routing protocols improved, new features, faster forwarding and so on. While software bugs aren’t any less, the software is exponentially more complex than that of 2000. The arrival of merchant silicon, while lamentable in many respects, reflects the business reality of that change.
It seems that many people are focused on the devices and not the software. The real value of OpenFlow is the Software Defined Networking. And the complexity of software, and the maintenance of that software is where the money is. The Controller and the Applications that build the OpenFlow entries is where the money is. Not in the devices.
So it’s possible that Google and Yahoo will achieve CapEx savings in the short term buying cheaper network hardware from Chinese ODMs. But they are also shifting their CapEx investment into an enormous software development and testing program to make controller applications. This means large teams of resources devoted to developing a custom application that suits their business as an Operating Expense. Does that sound like cost saving ? What’s the real cost over three years ? Five ? How many programmers and project managers does it cost to make that software ? What if they fail ? What’s the financial cost ?
The benefit, of course, is a new network that meets their EXACT requirements. In fact, hyperscale networks such as Google and yahoo are one of a kind and no vendor can really make products for them.
I don’t expect OpenFlow/SDN will be cheaper than the networking we have today over the long-term. The advantage is that our networks will have new features, that can be added dynamically and allow to bypass draconian change restrictions for fear of network problems.
That is the future of Software Defined Networking – better, dynamic, flexible and business focussed networking. But probably not much cheaper in the long run.