NTT Communications this week announced what appears to be the first of its kind: an enterprise cloud service that incorporates OpenFlow technology.
While other carriers have demonstrated OpenFlow capabilities, NTT Com is announcing a definitive launch date of June 29 in Japan and Hong Kong. Service from its two U.S. data centers, the UK and Singapore in December, and Australia, Malaysia and Thailand in March 2013.
OpenFlow is an open standard that essentially separates a router’s control path from its data path. The data path, which is responsible for forwarding packets, remains on the router or switch but the control path, which makes routing decisions, resides on a separate device, typically a server. This separation enables a more effective way of making routing decisions in a large network, since each router doesn’t have to be involved in every decision. Instead, the decisions are handled more centrally by software on the control server – giving rise to the name Software Defined Network (SDN).
I consider this to be a significant milestone, and not just because NTT Com sponsors this site. While the exact capabilities that OpenFlow will enable are still under development in test labs, one can envision it will result in highly customized cloud services. Picture a hybrid cloud environment where a company has OpenFlow-capable switches on its own network that work with the OpenFlow-capable service in NTT Com’s cloud. Now the network can appear as one entity, with routing decisions that span both environments. (Yes, that will require a high degree of cooperation on both sides, but work with me here.) I can also envision where OpenFlow would be a boon for features such as disaster recovery, with the ability to easily route traffic to a backup data center in the event of a failure either at a primary data center or in some portion of the network.
OpenFlow also promises to create far more efficient networks, with much higher utilization rates than exist today. That has certainly been the case for Google, which built its own OpenFlow-based routers. In its excellent coverage of the Google example, Wired used the analogy of taxis trying to get to quickly get to their destination while dealing with traffic delays:
“With the software-defined network Google has implemented, the taxi situation no longer resembles the decentralized model of drivers making their own decisions. Instead you have a system like the one envisioned when all cars are autonomous, and can report their whereabouts and plans to some central repository which also knows of weather conditions and aggregate traffic information. Such a system doesn’t need independent taxi drivers, because the system knows where the quickest routes are and what streets are blocked, and can set an ideal route from the outset. The system knows all the conditions and can institute a more sophisticated set of rules that determines how the taxis proceed, and even figure whether some taxis should stay in their garages while fire trucks pass.”
The research firm Ovum likens the advent of OpenFlow in carrier networks to when the Signaling System 7 (SS7) protocol came to carrier voice networks many (many) years ago:
“In the US, the regional bell operating companies (RBOCs) and the jointly owned Bellcore R&D unit were driving the effort, which took years to accomplish. The development of SS7 by the RBOCs resulted in a disruptive network technology which, when implemented in their networks, resulted in major cost savings. It also led to new services and sources of revenue, including caller ID and call waiting.”
OpenFlow is also likely to bring cost savings to carriers that employ it, as it enables them to use less expensive servers to handle control functions instead of high-end routers, while providing increased routing flexibility and better network utilization. Ultimately, that’s a good thing for customers; if carriers can keep their own costs down, they can offer services at more competitive prices.
It’s likely that it’ll be years before we fully understand the benefits that OpenFlow can deliver, but this is certainly a space that bears watching.