The concept of open networking really started gaining traction in 2014, when large networking vendors such as Dell and others adopted the concept. At its core was a simple proposition: decouple networking switching hardware from its software. Simple, yet profound for an industry that inextricably tied, monetized and packaged hardware and software together.
Fast forward to today. Open networking is now in its third year. Gone are the days when customers had to buy networking switching hardware and software together from a single supplier. Open networking irrevocably changed that.
As a technologist, what I find most interesting in open networking is what appears to be its fractal nature. What started out as a simple proposition—separating networking hardware from networking software—has proven to trigger a repeating sequence of disaggregation. Let’s observe the last few sequences.
Disaggregating hardware and software
First, networking software was decoupled from networking hardware via the Open Networking Install Environment (ONIE) bootloader (Figure 1). This Open Compute Project (OCP) open source initiative allows a mix-and-match of networking software with any ONIE-compliant switching platform. Customers can select software solutions from Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, IPinfusion, Pluribus, and others combined with commercial vendor ONIE-enabled switching hardware, to address a wide-range of networking use-cases.
Figure 1: Open Networking at the coreFurther disaggregation of networking hardware
Next, once the basic hardware and software elements are disaggregated, the sequence continues with the disaggregation of the networking hardware elements, specifically addressing silicon dependencies. (Figure 2)
This is achieved with the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), a specification jointly submitted to and approved by OCP from Microsoft, Dell, Broadcom, and others. The SAI spec enables silicon independence, allowing any networking operating system and associated apps to run on any brand of merchant silicon. This is particularly valuable to large-scale data center/cloud operators with deep investments in network-based application development.
Figure 2: Switch Abstraction Interface
Now the networking software
Shifting back again to the software layer, the sequence continues with a further disaggregation of the networking software stack. (Figure 3) This year, the two fundamental elements of networking system software—namely platform abstraction software and network abstraction software—have been disaggregated and made available as open source via the Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC) initiative in OCP.
This is an industry first and has a profound impact. Now, customers can procure base system software free of charge, free of any silicon dependencies, and free of any protocol stacks. Customers are now free to develop networking and security applications based on standard Linux or open source tool sets.
Essentially operators can now drive their switching elements as they would their server elements – while having the option at any time to load standard, traditional networking L2/L3 software to the system. This in turn opens up endless possibilities for customer use-cases.
Figure 3: Network Operating System Software Disaggregation
So what started out as a simple proposition—the decoupling of networking hardware from software—is proving to be a repeating process of systematic disaggregation. With each step of disaggregation, a new wave of innovation and a new breed of capabilities is unlocked. Looking ahead, this process fueled by the spirit of open networking, will no doubt repeat again, as the fractal nature of open networking unfolds.