Monday, November 8, 2010

Openflow - why its an exciting game changer for me

When I started my career (8 years ago) in networking, life was easy. I worked at a startup and had alot of freedom to experiment. I did some sysadmin stuff, lots of networking stuff and life was great.

Over that time something struck me as odd: when choosing for instance on what to run Bind, I had a choice of hardware, CPU's, memory and many many operating systems to chose from. This coupled with opensourse stuff meant we could run an ISP very cheaply with commodity hardware. I think we ran DNS on a regular Dell PC mounted on a shelf for the more than 3 yrs I worked there.

What we sort of accepted without question was the networking gear. We'd call a vendor test their products and buy it in full. The hardware, processor/central logic manufacturer,operating systems -- everything was by the same company - in our case cisco.

When I moved on to a mobile network, I noticed an uncanny similarity to this scenario with the GSM industry. Apple Android and other manufacturers have done alot to open up an industry that was shrouded in mystery. GSM products and specifically the core electronic components were as far as I know only done by a few companies: classic suppliers were Texas Instruments, ST/Ericsson, ADI/MediaTek), In neon, Freescal. Herald welte has an excellent article on this.

For each of the other things I needed to learn, there was always a simulator and cheap hardware to learn on. Openbsc and osmocombb (I had lots of fun with this on a motorolla C117) really helped me 'kill some two months eaarly this year. I killed that phone, doubt it'll ever make another call though maybe I'll have some time to mess around with it. its definately my fault that it doesn't work, not the software.

When I started on mobile data I used opensgsn extensively for testing the core network to verify flows without worrying about the access network,coupled with open bsc I could create very interesting test scenarios without worrying about the radio. It also made me sound quite clever while having discussions with the 'core' network guys.

I saw the openggsn project is now back to life. I never played around with this. I was lucky to have actual hardware - Cisco + Huawei.

Where am I going with this and what does openflow have to do with it:

Well I installed openflow over the last weekend after reading James Hamilton 's Datacenter networks are in my way document. I also have lots of hardware (PC's) to play around with. It addresses my earlier observation that in the networking world, it’s a vertically integrated stack and this slows innovation and artificially holds margins high. It’s a business model makes services unnecesarily expensive for everyone apart from the vendor and It lags behind in 'conforming to the rest of the pack ie servers and other general technology areas which are open.


The important thing for me is where this could lead to. Cheaper products, excellent learning platform (especially if cisco insist on making IOS inaccessible for educational purposes) and the ability to run networks on cheap hardware. Our small businesses require this. To this end I havt to also thank the folks running quagga,vyatta (I had to shift our entire NAT for millions of customers to Vyatta at some point - the free version) et all....I have had alot of fun...

If interested, my openflow is currently on a standalone PC, next I'll play with multiple PC's, vmware and see where this wave leads to....all in all a very productive use of my free time...

1 comment:

  1. really good writing John, regards kamau