The end of networking as we know it

Enterprise customers still have trouble grasping the promise of SDN. Stu Bailey of Infoblox has created an open source virtual switch that gets the point across

Stu Bailey is a certain type of irrepressible tech entrepreneur. Although he's founder and CTO of Infoblox, a network control solution provider, he seldom talks about his company -- and instead gets excited about emerging SDN technology with no immediate revenue potential.

In other words, Bailey gets to play, but with a purpose. His latest science project is LINCX, a production-ready virtual networking switch that is available as a free download to the SDN community via FlowForwarding.org. LINCX is not an Infoblox product. Instead, it's a modest open source project based on the OpenFlow specification that demonstrates something profound about the future of networking.

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"We're pretty excited about it, because it really points the way to CPU-based data planes," Bailey told InfoWorld last week. How could this affect the average data center? Bailey elaborates:

I think our focus on a pure SDN model blurs the distinction between the data plane and what is a compute server. With our stack, it's very easy to instantiate a rack of compute that has no top-of-rack switch at all. Every element is just a multicore, multi-interface box almost randomly interconnected, and at any one time they can be doing switching activities or compute activities or control plane activities. And that's a radically different architecture, where you've basically taken the top-of-rack switch out.

In other words, Bailey is talking about a network architecture where the network is basically "the wires between the servers." Obviously, that has the potential to save a huge chunk of capital expenditures that would otherwise go to switches. But with no switches to maintain -- or at least a vastly reduced number -- operating expenses should also fall dramatically. That's absolutely a core promise of SDN.

Of course, LINCX is not the only virtual switch available. I asked Bailey to compare LINCX to Open vSwitch, the open source virtual switch offered by VMware. He sees LINCX as a much simpler offering than Open vSwitch, which essentially turns a server into a full-fledged switch. "LINCX has no semantics; it has no prebuilt rules. It is a piece of wood until you connect it to a controller that speaks OpenFlow," he says. This follows the basic premise of SDN, where the control plane and data plane are separate, and the control plane programs and coordinates data planes across the data center.

Despite the simplicity, "we're getting about 80 percent of the performance of Open vSwitch," says Bailey. In addition, "It just should be easier to deploy because it's just a Xen VM. If you know how to deploy a Xen VM, you know how to deploy LINCX. Done."

As a fun little demonstration project, Bailey brought LINCX home. "I even have it running as an Internet gateway for my own house. I have a small Intel Atom box that touches every single Ethernet frame going to and from the Internet and matches hundreds of rules against it. I have three kids at home, and it's working just fine."

According to the press release, LINCX was built in one year by a team of only six engineers at a cost of about $1 million, and contains about 34,000 lines of code. "The point is, this is not hard," Bailey explains. "We're just helping the market understand that CPU-based data planes could come out of garages and college student projects within the next few years that are very viable."

Infoblox is in the business of selling network control solutions. Over the long term, says Bailey, the company will be developing new functionality at the SDN control plane and above. But first, SDN needs to take hold -- and LINCX is an open source solution intended to move SDN forward and enable people to grasp the benefits. Most of all, Bailey says, he's excited to see what his customer base does with it.

This article, "The end of networking as we know it," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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