Software-defined networking in universities today is like the early Internet decades ago, and big-data researchers in genomics and other fields already need it for their next set of discoveries, according to the head of Internet2.
Internet2 runs a US-wide network linking research institutions, and it's already using elements of SDN on its production infrastructure. SDN, a closely watched set of technologies at various stages of development, is intended to shift the control of networks from specialised devices such as switches and routers to software that can run on standard computing platforms and be virtualised. It promises a range of benefits that could include lower costs, faster service deployment and more network innovation.
The Internet itself began as a tool to help far-flung researchers share data and insights. But the massive amounts of data that many scientists work with today, thanks to advances in computing and storage, require new ways to communicate, said David Lambert, Internet2's president and CEO, at the Open Networking Summit conference on Wednesday.
The technology used on the Internet today isn't flexible enough to support those new requirements, such as large file transfers, massive data sets, and content caching and distribution, Lambert said.
"The genomics community finds very little in our current-generation Internet that is capable of supporting the needs they have," Lambert said. SDN will let developers invent new networking methods suited to the needs of different applications, he said.
Internet2 is operating a live, production pilot for SDN as well as a high-speed backbone to give academic users plenty of bandwidth for new applications. The organisation has deployed OpenFlow-enabled routers, including gear from Juniper Networks and Brocade, on the 100-Gigabit Ethernet network. There are 29 major universities committed to bringing 100-Gigabit connections to their campuses and to using Internet2's OpenFlow-based service.
SDN represents as big a change in networking as Ethernet and Internet Protocol did when IBM's SNA (System Network Architecture) ruled the land, according to Lambert. "I see a lot of parallels to what we are dealing with, with SDN right now," he said. But the industry is adapting much faster this time, he added.
Just as NSFnet was the first-generation Internet when it went online in 1986, Internet2 is the first generation of a new type of network that will spark further innovation, he said.
"The services that we will provide on this network are going to be as different from the current Internet as the current Internet is from what we had 25 years ago," Lambert said.
Openness is important to keep alive the freewheeling type of innovation that's happening now in SDN, Lambert said. For decades, networking vendors have focused on shipping products rather than pursuing fundamental change in the Internet's software stack, he said.
"The need of the commercial vendors to create economic advantage ... had created a system that was too closed," Lambert said.
The result is a one-size-fits-all system that isn't suited to new kinds of data flows, such as those needed for big-data research. SDN can give developers the freedom to make networks operate in completely new ways, Lambert said. It's important not to let vendors lock down the ground rules of SDN too soon, he said.
"The thing that excites me most about the development of OpenFlow and SDN ... is the opportunity to have a network stack that's open again, that people can actually get their hands on, and use it and do disruptive things," Lambert said.