Network Field Day 5 started off with a full day at Cisco. The Data Center group opened and closed the day, with the Borderless team sandwiched in between. Omar Sultan (@omarsultan) greeted us as we settled in for a continental breakfast before getting started.
The opening was a discussion of onePK, a popular topic as of late from Cisco. While the topic du jour in the networking world is software-defined networking (SDN), Cisco steers the conversation toward onePK. This, at its core, is API access to all the flavors of the Internetwork Operating System (IOS). While other vendors discuss how to implement protocols like OpenFlow or how to expose pieces of their underlying systems to developers, Cisco has built a platform to allow access into pieces and parts of the OS. You can write applications in Java or Python to pull data from the system or push configurations to it. The process is slowly being rolled out to the major Cisco platforms. The support for the majority of the Nexus switching line should give the reader a good idea of where Cisco thinks this technology will be of best use.
One of the specific applications that Cisco showed off to us using onePK is the use of Puppet to provision switches from bare metal to functioning with a minimum of human effor. Puppet integration was a big underlying topic at both Cisco and Juniper (more on that in the Juniper NFD5 post). Puppet is gaining steam in the netowrking industry as a way to get hardware up and running quickly with the least amount of fuss. Server admins have enjoyed the flexibility of Puppet for a some time. It’s good to see well-tested and approved software like this being repurposed for similar functionality in the world of routing and switching.
Next up was a discussion about the Cisco ONE network controller. Controllers are a very hot topic in the network world today. OpenFlow allows a central management and policy server to push information and flow data into switches. This allows network admins to get a “big picture” of the network and how the packets are flowing across it. Having the ability to view the network in its entirity also allows admins to start partitioning it in a process called “slicing.” This was one of the first applications that the Stanford wiz kids used OpenFlow to accomplish. It makes sense when you think about how universities wanted to partition off their test networks to prevent this radical OpenFlow idea from crashing the production hardware. Now, we’re looking at using slicing for things like multi-tenancy and security. The building blocks are there to make some pretty interesting leaps. The real key is that the central controller have the ability to keep up with the flows being pushed through the network. Cisco’s ONE controller not only speaks OpenFlow, but onePK as well. This means that while the ONE controller can talk to disparate networking devices running OpenFlow, it will be able to speak much more clearly to any Cisco devices you have lying around. That’s a pretty calculated play from Cisco, given that the initial target for their controller will be networks populated primarily by Cisco equipment. The use case that was given to us for the Cisco ONE controller was replacing large network taps with SDN options. Fans of NFD may remember our trip to Gigamon. Cisco hadn’t forgotten, as the network tap they used as an example in their slide looked just like the orange Gigamon switch we saw at a previous NFD.
After the presentations from the Borderless team, we ended the day with an open discussion around a few topics. This is where the real fun started. Here’s the video:
The first hour or so is a discussion around hybrid switching. I had some points in here about the standoff between hardware and software people not really wanting to get along right now. I termed it a Mexican Standoff because no one really wants to flinch and go down the wrong path. The software people just want to write overlays and things like and make it run on everything. The entrenched hardware vendors, like Cisco, want to make sure their hardware is providing better performance than anyone else (because that’s where their edge is). Until someone decides to take a chance and push things in different directions, we’re not going to see much movement. Also, around 1:09:00 is where we talked a bit about Cisco jumping into the game with a pure OpenFlow switch without much more on top of it. This concept seemed a bit foreign to some of the Cisco folks, as they can’t understand why people wouldn’t want IOS and onePK. That’s where I chimed in with my “If I want a pickup truck, I don’t take a chainsaw to a school bus.” You shouldn’t have to shed all the extra stuff to get the performance you want. Start with a smaller platform and work your way up instead of starting with the kitchen sink and stripping things away.
Shortly after this is where the fireworks started. One of Cisco’s people started arguing that OpenFlow isn’t the answer. He said that the customer he was talking to didn’t want OpenFlow. He even went so far as to say that “OpenFlow is a fantasy because it promises everything and there’s nothing in production.” (about 1:17:00) Folks, this was one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever seen at a Network Field Day event. The tension in the room was palpable. Brent and Greg were on this guy the entire time about how OpenFlow was solving real problems for customers today, and in Brent’s case he’s running it in production. I really wonder how the results of this are going to play out. If Cisco hears that their customers don’t care that much about OpenFlow and just want their gear to do SDN like in onePK then that’s what they are going to deliver. The question then becomes whether or not network engineers that believe that OpenFlow has a big place in the networks of tomorrow can convince Cisco to change their ways.
Cisco’s Data Center group has a lot of interesting things to say about programmability in the network. From discussions about APIs to controllers to knock down, drag out aruguments about what role OpenFlow is going to play, Cisco has the gamut covered. I think that their position at the top of the network heap gives them a lot of insight into what’s going on. I’m just worried that they are going to use that to push a specific agenda and not embrace useful technologies down the road that solve customer problems. You’re going to hear a lot more from Cisco on software defined networking in the near future as they begin to roll out more and more features to their hardware in the coming months.
Tech Field Day Disclaimer
Cisco was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5. As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5. In addition, Cisco provided me with a breakfast and lunch at their offices. They also provided a Moleskine notebook, a t-shirt, and a flashlight toy. At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review. The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.
Additional NFD5 Blog Posts