SDN Controller Wars 2.0 – ON.LAB & Juniper Re-Ignite the Open-Source Battleground. Part 1 of 2

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With recent movement the last few months in the SDN controller space, it appears that 2014 might be the year where controllers duke it out for dominance. Certainly we haven’t seen the end of the virtual switching wars of 2013 yet; with a bunch of virtual switches both open-source and commercial in play (Nicira/VMware‘s NSX with its vswitch component; NEC’s PF1000V for Hyper-V environments, the Cisco NX1000V and that new Application Virtual Switch in Insieme’s announcementOpen vSwitch‘s new version 2.0; and FlowForwarding.org’s LINC softswitch).

But while virtual switches are strategic, a new battle appears to be brewing. My partner, Matt Palmer, talked about what we heard from the community in his recent post on ON.LAB and ONOS. And that prompted me to write a state-of-the-union article summarizing where we are today with controllers, how things might play out in 2014 and beyond, and what enterprises, cloud providers, and service providers must know and should do.

What’s at Risk and Why SDN Controllers are Important

The controller is a strategic control point in an SDN network — it is essentially the brains of the network. And no networking vendor is going to cede control of their network equipment to a third party, because it puts them at risk of being dis-intermediated and subsequently pushed out, or at the very least, marginalized.

And so, there are two possibly stable models in an ecosystem: one where dominant networking vendors provide their own controllers that orchestrate their equipment and possibly others, or another where a “safe, trusted” third party provides an open controller that all vendors (or at least a majority) support. The latter model is of course what the OpenDaylight Project (ODP) is proposing. ODP has gained substantial vendor support over the last six months, with an increasing number of vendors jumping in to contribute their expertise and code. This open controller will also enable end-users like cloud and service providers to build on top of the foundation, adding their proprietary “secret sauce” that allows them to provide differentiated offerings in the marketplace.

What Commercial SDN Controllers Exist Today?

To understand the value of open-source controllers like ODP going forward, we need to understand what’s happening in the commercial space. Let’s look at some well-known networking vendors and examine who has a controller today (or is planning to launch one):

Company

ODP Member

Controller Strategy
Arista

Y

There were rumors that Tom Black was going to Arista to help them build a controller, but Tom has since left and is at HP. The reality so far is that Arista has not built a controller but has focused instead on exposing APIs to programmatic access (eAPI), provided a DirectFlow API for static one-off flow-based rules. Arista also continues to build focused applications for its switches (like tapping and latency analysis). It partners with DevOps-type platforms for automation, including the usual suspects of Puppet and Chef but also Ansible and Stateless Networks. And finally, Arista stays close to VMware by integrating with VMware’s NSX controller, allowing NSX to configure VXLAN and more on its switches.
Brocade

Y

To date, we have not seen a controller from Brocade, but they are active in OpenDaylight (David Meyer of Brocade is the current chair of the Technical Steering Committee). However, with the acquisition of Vyatta, and their aggressive hiring of software developers, Brocade’s software DNA is improving, and it’s likely that they will soon have the means to create their own controller.
Cisco

Y

Things just got more complicated with the Insieme announcements. Cisco now has XNC (its commercial version of the OpenDaylight controller), the Cisco ONE controller with onePK, and the new Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) that came with Insieme. It’s still confusing as to how all this will be rationalized, especially given the existence of their efforts on ODP. Regardless, Cisco is still the biggest kid on the block and will be for some time, so whatever it does on any front will affect the controller ecosystem significantly.
Cyan

Y

Cyan has its own controller as part of its Blue Planet orchestration system. Cyan’s OpenFlow-enabled controller is primarily focused on WAN use cases today, but certainly nothing prevents the company from eventually entering the data-center space.
Dell

Y

Dell provides OpenFlow support on its switches, and its Active Fabric Manager provides configuration and orchestration integration with platforms like OpenStack, but Dell does not have a controller today, nor have we heard rumors or plans that it will build one.
Extreme/
Enterasys

N

Extreme and Enterasys are probably busy with merging their business and product lines. They have not made clear their controller strategy, and they haven’t joined OpenDaylight. Extreme supports OpenFlow on its switches, and Enterasys has its OneFabricConnect SDN framework, but OneFabricConnect looks to be more similar to Cisco’s onePK northbound API approach. The difference is that Enterasys’ APIs are primarily focused on access control and per-port policies instead of flows.
HP

Y

While HP supports ODP, it also have its own Virtual Application Networks (VAN) controller which speaks OpenFlow, a recently announced SDN application store, and a federated control protocol with VMware’s NSX controller. HP has been very active in recruiting partners to port  applications to its controller — including DDI (DNS, DHCP, IPAM), Layer 4-7, and security vendors. It remains to be seen how HP will rationalize its participation in ODP with its own VAN and SDN app store.
Huawei

Y

Huawei has demonstrated various OpenFlow controllers in combination with its switches and routers (there were rumors of at least three distinct controller efforts inside Huawei). Recently, Huawei has taken a very active role in ODP. While we can’t speculate on the future, Huawei is probably hoping that ODP will take off and that the market will trust an open-source controller more than one from Huawei, thus allowing the company to sell more of its networking equipment with ODP.
IBM

Y

IBM has been extremely active in ODP while continuing to market its PNC OpenFlow controller (likely a re-badged version of NEC’s ProgrammableFlow controller). In the meantime, we believe that IBM continues to work on an internal controller while porting its DOVE overlay solution into ODP (Open DOVE).
Juniper

Y

Juniper paid good money to join ODP as a Platinum member but soon after, it decided to unilaterally release the Contrail controller solution as an open-source project called OpenContrail. Customers and the ecosystem (including some Juniper employees) are confused as to where Juniper is going, and OpenContrail has had little to no traction outside of Juniper today.
Midokura

Y

Midokura has a distributed SDN controller primarily focused on network virtualization, and it targets cloud IaaS environments.
NEC

Y

NEC is actively porting its Virtual Tenant Network (VTN) abstraction into OpenDaylight while continuing to sell its ProgrammableFlow Controller solution. NEC’s controller is arguably one of the most mature and robust SDN controllers in the commercial marketplace today, deployed in production within data centers at NTT as well as in critical networks like hospitals.
Nuage Networks

Y

Nuage has a controller that’s focused on network virtualization and that speaks WAN protocols to facilitate integration of virtual LAN networks with WAN.
Plexxi

Y

Plexxi has a proprietary SDN controller that controls its Plexxi switches, optimizing network flows based on affinity and providing RESTful northbound APIs for applications and partners to integrate other solutions.
PLUMgrid

Y

PLUMgrid’s proprietary controller is designed to maintain control of its network virtualization solution and is not targeted at controlling external elements today. Like other network virtualization-focused controllers, it provides RESTful APIs in the form of proprietary northbound interfaces.
VMware

N

While VMware is not strictly a networking vendor, it is a critical player in the ecosystem. VMware launched its NSX solution earlier this year, based on its Nicira acquisition, which includes a controller focused primarily on network virtualization that can control both virtual and physical networks through its OVSDB integration with partners like Arista and white box switches from Cumulus.

 Of the above commercial controllers, the ones to watch are Cisco’s and VMware’s, since they each are leaders in networking and virtualization, but I would also be keeping my eye on NEC, HP, IBM, Nuage, and Juniper to see if they are able to expand their spans of control beyond their own equipment. The other controllers are very solution-specific (primarily closed-network virtualization solutions) and unlikely to grow beyond single-vendor ecosystems in the near term. 

Which are the Viable Open-Source Controllers?

On the other end of the spectrum, to balance out the commercial offerings, and which in theory should keep commercial vendors in check, are the open-source controllers. And in the open-source world, there is certainly one granddaddy today — ODP. With a large support base of numerous vendors and a growing independent developer ecosystem, it seems like the one to beat. However, it has been challenged in pulling together disparate code bases and diverse modules from multiple parties. It’s no surprise that integrating such a beast is a challenging task. The Hydrogen release, originally targeted for early this month, has been pushed out and hopefully will be tested and released before the OpenDaylight Summit on Feb 4, 2014.

Newer open-source controllers out there include OpenContrail from Juniper and ONOS from ON.LAB (not released yet), adding to the list of open-source controllers that have been around for some time, including NOX, POX, Beacon, Floodlight, Trema, Ryu etc. Trema is a project within NEC and is still active but has seen limited traction in the commercial world. Ryu is backed by NTT and actively worked on, particularly around its OpenStack integration.

What Next?

In part II of the post, I compare the differences between the three new major open-source controllers and provide my opinion of how this will play out  in 2014. I also discuss what service providers and enterprises ought to consider as they move ahead with their SDN and NFV strategies.

On to Part II!

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