Most of the readers of my blog would agree that there is a lot of discussion in the networking world today about software defined networking (SDN) and the various parts and pieces that make up that umbrella term. There’s argument over what SDN really is, from programmability to orchestration to network function virtualization (NFV). Vendors are doing their part to take advantage of some, all, or in some cases none of the above to push a particular buzzword strategy to customers. I like to make sure that everything is as clear as possible before I start discussing the pros and cons. That’s why I jumped at the chance to get a briefing from Brocade around their new software and hardware releases that were announced on April 30th.
I spoke with Kelly Harrell, Brocade’s new vice president and general manager of the Software Business Unit. If that name sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because Mr. Harrell was formerly at Vyatta, the software router company that was acquired by Brocade last year. We walked through a presentation and discussion of the direction that Brocade is taking their software defined networking portfolio. According to Brocade, the key is to be pragmatic about the new network. New technologies and methodologies need to be introduced while at the same time keeping in mind that those ideas must be implemented somehow. I think that a large amount of the frustration with SDN today comes from a lot of vaporware presentations and pie-in-the-sky ideas that aren’t slated to come to fruition for months. Instead, Brocade talked to me about real products and use cases that should be shipping very soon, if not already.
The key to Brocade is to balance SDN against network function virtualization, something I referred to a bit in my Network Field Day 5 post about Brocade. Back then, I called NFV “Networking Done (by) Software,” which was my sad attempt to point out how NFV is just the opposite of what I see SDN becoming. During our discussion, Harrell pointed out that NFV and SDN aren’t totally dissimilar after all. Both are designed to increase the agility with which a company can execute on strategy and create value for shareholders. SDN is primarily focused on programmability and orchestration. NFV is tied more toward lowering costs by implementing existing technology in a flexible way.
NFV seeks to take existing appliances that have been doing tasks, such as load balancers or routers, and free their workloads from being tied to a specific piece of hardware. In fact, there has been an explosion of these types of migrations from a variety of vendors. People are virtualizing entire business lines in an effort to remove the reliance on specialized hardware or reduce the ongoing support costs. Brocade is seeking to do this with two platforms right now. The first is the Vyatta vRouter, which is the extension what came over in the Vyatta acquisition. It’s a router and a firewall and even a virtual private networking (VPN) device that can run on just about anything. It is hypervisor agnostic and cloud platform agnostic as well. The idea is that Brocade can include a copy of the vRouter with application packages that can be downloaded from an enterprise cloud app store. Once downloaded and installed, the vRouter can be fired up and pull a predefined configuration from the scripts included in the box. By making it agnostic to the underlying platform, there’s no worry about support down the road.
The second NFV platform Brocade told me about is the virtual ADX application delivery switch. It’s basically a software load balancer. That’s not really the key point of the whole idea of applying the NFV template to an existing hardware platform. Instead, the idea is that we’re taking something that’s been historically huge and hard to manage and moving it closer to the edge where it can be of better use. Rather that sticking a huge load balancer at the entry point to the data center to ensure that flows are separated, the vADX allows the load balancer to be deployed very close to the server or servers that need to have the information flow metered. Now, the agility of SDN/NFV allows these software devices to be moved and reconfigured quickly without needing to worry about how much reprogramming is going to be necessary to pull the primary load balancer out or change a ton of rules to take reroute traffic to a vMotioned cluster. In fact, I’m sure that we’re going to see a new definition of the “network edge” being to emerge as more software-based NFV devices begin to be deployed closer and closer to the devices that need them.
On the OpenFlow front, Brocade told me about their new push toward something they are calling “Hybrid Port OpenFlow.” OpenFlow is a great disruptive SDN technology that is gaining traction today, largely in part because of companies like Brocade and NEC that have embraced it and started pushing it out to their customer base well ahead of other manufacturers. Right now, OpenFlow support really consists to two modes – ON and OFF. OFF is pretty easy to imagine. ON is a bit more complicated. While a switch can be OpenFlow enabled and still forward normal traffic, the practice has always been to either dedicate the switch to OpenFlow forwarding, in effect turning it into a lab switch, or to enable OpenFlow selectively for a group of ports out of the whole switch, kind of like creating a lab VLAN for testing on a production box. Brocade’s Hybrid Port OpenFlow model allows you to enable OpenFlow on a port and still allow it to do regular traffic forwarding sans OpenFlow. That may be the best model for adopters going forward due to one overriding factor – cost. When you take a switch or a group of ports on a switch and dedicate them for OpenFlow, you are cost the enterprise something. Every port on the switch costs a certain amount of money. Every minute an engineer spends working on a crazy lab project incurs a cost. By enabling the network engineers to turn on OpenFlow at will without disrupting the existing traffic flow, Brocade can reduce the opportunity cost of enabling OpenFlow to almost zero. If OpenFlow just becomes something that works as soon as you enable it, like IPv6 in Windows 7, you don’t have to spend as much time planning for your end node configuration. You just build the core and let the end nodes figure out they have new capabilities. I figure that large Brocade networks will see their OpenFlow adoption numbers skyrocket simply because Hybrid Port mode turns the configuration into Easy Mode.
The last interesting software piece that Brocade showed me is a prime example of the kinds of things that I expect SDN to deliver to us in the future. Brocade has created an application called the Application Resource Broker (ARB). It sits above the fray of the lower network layers and monitors indicators of a particular application’s health, such as latency and load. When one of those indicators hits a specific threshold, ARB kicks in to request more resources from vCenter to balance things out. If the demand on the application continues to rise beyond the available resources, ARB can dynamically move the application to a public cloud instance with a much deeper pool of resources, a process known as cloudbursting. All of this can happen automatically without the intervention of IT. This is one of the things that shows me what SDN can really do. Software can take care of itself and dynamically move things around when abnormal demand happens. Intelligent choices about the network environment can be made on solid data. No guess what about what “might” be happening. ARB removes doubt and lag in response time to allow for seamless network repair. Try doing that with a telnet session.
The future looks interesting at first. Flying cars, moving sidewalks, and 3D user interfaces are all staples of futuristic science fiction. The problem for many arises when we need to start taking steps to build those fanciful things. A healthy dose of pragmatism helps to figure out what we need to do today to make tomorrow happen. If we root our views of what we want to do with what we can do, then the future becomes that much more achievable. Even the amazing gadgets we take for granted today have a basis in the real technology of the time they were first created. By making those incremental steps, we can arrive where we want to be a whole lot sooner with a better understanding of how amazing things really are.