The globally joined effort to streamline and automate network infrastructures and operations marches on. In fact, there has recently been an intriguing new infusion of pep in its step.
While server and storage virtualization have been widely adopted by information technology (IT) departments across industries and markets, nascent network virtualization has taken a dramatic leap forward recently. The world's first demonstration of dynamic control of wavelength-switched optical networks via OpenFlow offers the prospect to seamlessly extend SDN to the optical domain.
What might OpenFlow-enabled programmable network control across both the packet and optical layers mean for network efficiency moving forward?
Beyond the Packet Domain
In SDN, network control is decoupled from the data plane. An abstraction of the network infrastructure is provided to the applications running over it, allowing the orchestration of networking and IT resources under a common management umbrella.
OpenFlow is one of the world’s quickly emerging SDN protocols. Originating from Stanford University and now maintained and developed by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), OpenFlow allows network virtualization and control of flow forwarding through secure and standardized interfaces. Data centers for Web 2.0 companies and research-and-education institutions were perhaps the first to cotton to SDN and OpenFlow, but large carriers, too, have recognized their potential for streamlining IT architectures, offering managed on-demand services and augmenting the network edge with enhanced network awareness.
Until now, SDN and OpenFlow development has largely been concentrated on the network’s electrical packet domain and Layers 2/3. Extending the concept and capabilities to wavelength-switched optical networks, however, was inevitable.
A Prototype of Far-reaching Potential
The extension of OpenFlow from the packet world to the optical domain was made possible by development of key additions to the protocol in order to control the optical layer and account for considerations that are optical-layer specific, such as switching and wavelength-continuity constraints, optical impairments and optical power leveling.
Development continues thanks to a collaborative project within the European Commission’s FP7 ICT Work Programme. OFELIA (for “OpenFlow in Europe—Linking Infrastructure and Applications”) provides researchers with an SDN testbed that includes packet switches and application servers that can be dynamically connected by optical lightpaths. In a prototype implementation, a common OpenFlow umbrella extends integrated control of both the packet and optical layers.
OFELIA invites external users to dabble with new applications of the groundbreaking capability via a flexible, Web-services approach. Users directly access OFELIA’s unique, experimental facility via GEANT, a high-bandwidth, pan-European backbone that interconnects national research and education networks. Via Web-based tools and services, users can request network resources from OFELIA and run, control and monitor their own SDN applications using an open application programming interface (API).
“This is something that has never been done before,” said Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, head of the High Performance Networks Group at the University of Essex, in a press release. “Researchers can now obtain slices of network infrastructure to program their own virtual multi-layer networks. They can use optical switching alongside packet switching to adapt bandwidth, latency and power consumption to their application needs.”
What Might It Mean?
In the OFELIA demonstration, SDN and OpenFlow effectively create a software bridge between the application and networking worlds. This means that an organization could potentially integrate a wavelength-switched optical layer into an OpenFlow-based custom control framework—a framework that the organization might, in fact, already be using (or planning to use) for its packet network.
Programmable network control across multiple layers — and the unprecedented flexibility, agility and scalability, simpler management and virtualization that it would enable — could spur wholly new networking paradigms. Users could negotiate bandwidth, latency and power consumption according to their application needs. For example, a high-bandwidth flow could be dynamically switched to the optical layer to minimize latency and power consumption, while flows of finer granularity could be processed and aggregated on the electrical packet layer.
Using one common OpenFlow control for both packet and optical layers, organizations could adopt substantially more efficient and effective network solutions for use cases such as forward-looking cloud-computing services, long-distance data-center interconnection, dial-up bandwidth services, service elasticity and mobility and other custom networking applications.
News of the OFELIA demonstration has the networking world wanting to see more. A software-defined optical network could significantly simplify the configuration, management and scaling of large infrastructures. That’s, of course, good news for IT managers all over, who are under continuous pressure to streamline and automate network infrastructures and operations.
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Edited by Rich Steeves