November 17, 2011, 2:19 PM — APIs and messaging protocols, including some that are standards, can let users build software-defined networks today. The key issue, though, is that not everyone implements the same ones or implements them the same way. Will OpenFlow get us all on the same path to SDN nirvana?
OpenFlow is an open source API defined to enable multivendor switches and routers to be programmable through software on a central control element -- hence, "software-defined networking." It's designed to manage and direct traffic among routers and switches from various vendors by separating the programming of routers and switches from underlying hardware in order to provide consistency in flow management and engineering.
ALTERNATIVES: 6 ways to build SDNs without OpenFlow
OpenFlow proponents say the API and protocol, and SDNs in general, will open up networks to more innovation by providing a level of abstraction, or virtualization, between network control and the physical infrastructure.
"Most of the applications that we're looking at that are really useful around SDN (such as virtualized, multitenant data centers) are things that I just can't picture building without OpenFlow," says Kyle Forster, co-founder of Big Switch Networks, a maker of OpenFlow controllers.
"We all recognize that managing networks that span multiple data centers, that may or not be owned by the company, is becoming too complex regardless of all the other advancements being made," says Derek Silva, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario. "Network management needs to be easier, and I feel that the vision developed by the SDN movement and [OpenFlow evangelist Open Networking Foundation] is probably the best way to make it happen."
But there are other considerations at play as well, such as where to physically locate the flow controllers, and these considerations are leading some to look beyond OpenFlow.