Software-defined networking (SDN) is a game changer for adoption of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in the network industry.

COTS is shorthand for industry standard servers (e.g., Intel), merchant semiconductors (e.g., Broadcom and Cavium) and standard operating systems (e.g., Linux).

The network industry has been living in a world of purpose-built systems for 30-plus years. It is standard practice for Ericsson, Cisco, F5 or Juniper to design their own ASIC chips, develop proprietary operating systems (e.g., Cisco IOS), and integrate it all into highly optimised systems (e.g., base stations, routers and Ethernet switches).

SDN changes the game by moving the focus to software and the application ecosystem. SDN provides for separation of the control and data plane - that is, the intelligence of the switch or router is split from the packet forwarding engine. It is this separation that provides plenty of opportunities for creative engineering of new architectures to deliver network functionality.

Network vendors are increasingly finding their value-add is coming from highly specialised software. SDN offers the prospect of a broad ecosystem of ISVs, startups and universities to offer specialised applications that leverage SDN platforms.

The migration to a software-led network and potential changes to how we build network equipment will lead the industry toward COTS. The benefits of COTS include:

  • Faster design cycles
  • Less expensive hardware
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Benefits of server virtualisation

Traditional designs of switches, routers, firewalls and server load balancers using custom silicon will continue to be necessary to deliver ultra-high performance throughput, but networks of the future will see hybrid designs of specialised hardware combined with more COTS elements. These COTS platforms will include software on servers as well as network equipment utilizing x86 and other merchant silicon designs.

Lee Doyle is principal analyst at Doyle Research