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What’s left for SDN after the hype?

Say SDN one more time!

The following excerpt is an obligatory reading to understand SDN. It comes from the article “SDN is DevOps for Networking” by Rob Sherwood, written in 2014. If you haven’t read it yet, do it now.

The term SDN was first coined in an MIT Technology Review article by comparing the shift in networking to the shift in radio technology with the advance from software defined radios.

However, the term is perhaps misleading because almost all networking devices contain a mix of hardware and software components. This ambiguity was leveraged and exacerbated by a litany of companies trying to re-brand products under the “SDN” umbrella and effectively join the SDN bandwagon. As a result, much of the technical merit of SDN has been lost in the noise.

The conflict starts with semantics. When researchers refer to SDN, they don’t mean any network defined by a software, that’s too simplistic. It means a specific group of ideas in computer networking, mostly established around the abstraction and separation between the control and data plane. From that premise, the term has been thoroughly misused in the industry. Further, there are different levels of abstraction where this separation can be built upon:

Because of this separation, you can decouple innovation cycles and optimize your network with a global view of the network for example. In fact, the most valuable goal of SDN is to decouple innovation cycles, in other words, you can improve your network control independent from underlying technologies. This has significantly improved feature velocity in the industry. We’ve seen more improvement in the industry in the last 10 years than in the last 30. One of my posts gives some evidence on that.

In that way, OF or P4 is an abstraction based on forwarding API, while a more traditional approach of network automation is an abstraction built on top of traditional APIs. In that way, different levels of abstraction can deliver on the SDN value propositions on different levels. Some optimization can be achieved without pure SDN but not all.

I’ve seen people calling BGP, SDN: It has a software, thus it’s software-defined, right? No. What if I use a route reflector in order to specify BGP policy from a central point? Okay, now we are talking. A much more thoughtful argument is ‘you need network automation/DevOps, not SDN’. Indeed, for many use cases, that’s enough and that brings me to my next topic:

DevOps for networking

Disclaimer: humanity will agree on the meaning of life before the agreeing on the meaning of SDN and DevOps. I’ll take the meaning from the article mentioned before: “DevOps infuses traditional server administration with best practices from software engineering, including abstraction, automation, centralization, release management and testing”. I’m pretty sure most people can agree those are desirable practices/outcomes. 

IaC does give you the opportunity to deliver on most of the these:

  • Abstraction
  • Automation
  • Centralization
  • Release management
  • Testing

It provides an abstraction of the control plane leveraging legacy APIs that is good enough for a lot of people. Also, It’s much easier to make a case to hire a couple developers than it is to replace hardware. Network disaggregation at the bare-metal layer has already delivered a lot. Now can network automation deliver global optimization?

Definitely. That doesn’t mean you should, or it’s the best or cheapest way. Think about this: To what extent is it worth to deliver optimization using automation? What abstractions would make it easier for you to do so?  This now becomes an engineering problem in which we evaluate what technology to use to solve a problem.

Traffic Engineering

For example, take backbone TE, some organizations are perfectly fine running links at 30% average utilization. Some companies are hurt by elephant flows, some are not. Why would you care about TE again? I’m glad I asked, check this post.Jokes aside, A company with effective TE will consistently deliver better user-experience at reduced costs OpEx and CapEx, eventually, those efficiencies will be assimilated by the market. In fact, I’d argue we are starting to observe that. I ask you, which companies are spending most money expanding their networks? Yes, content providers such as Google and Facebook.

Can we deliver global optimization with RSVP-TE? Sure. How complex is the software system that performs those optimizations? You tell me. What’s the average size of a backbone TE team? I’m sure it’s at least half a dozen CCIEs, a ton of vendors and lots of lower level support engineers. Most ISPs have not delivered on real-time global optimization yet. Not many of them have mentioned these optimizations.

Google has publicized some data and they informed SDN teams supports 6 times the feature velocity compared to traditional networking architectures. With dubitable logic, one could induce that it’s 6 times more expensive to deliver TE with traditional architectures.

After more than a year of incremental rollout, Espresso supports six times the feature velocity, 75% cost-reduction, many novel features and exponential capacity growth relative to traditional architectures

How many engineers would you need to develop an OF based TE system?

One could make an argument that the underlying technology doesn’t matter as long as the solution is delivered. Fair enough. In this case, I’d ask you what architecture is going to be more extensible, providing you the biggest long-term benefit? The one put together with a bunch of hacks or the one built from the ground up?

Conclusion – What’s left after the hype?

The main reasons that started the SDN revolution are still real: the need for reduced networking costs and faster innovation cycles. Pure SDN is not the only way to achieve those, network disaggregation and network automation have delivered on those value propositions, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. P4 is a great example as it aims to increase innovation speeds on the hardware side of the equation.

It’s no longer a question whether one can reduce costs with new practices in networking. Expensive operations will be replaced piece by piece, it started on the data center, now the backbone is the new goal. Additionally, I speculate that due to 5G, in 2019, the regulatory framework is going to change a lot, allowing innovative companies to increase market share significantly. Effective innovation strategies will allow the best ISPs to expand at a much-reduced cost and the market will see that sooner or later.

Published inPerspectivesThoughts & theories

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