SDN Focus: Interview with Dan Pitt, Open Networking Foundation

3 Jun 2014

Pictured: Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation

The rise of software-defined networking (SDN) will place a considerable emphasis on producing people with the programming skills to manage this quantum leap in network management, the executive director of the Open Networking Foundation Dan Pitt has warned.

Pitt, who will be in Ireland on 30 June to address the Open Tech Ireland gathering on SDN technology, said the paradigm shift in networking technology was long over due.

In addition to ONF and IDA Ireland, Open Tech Ireland: An SDN Gathering is being presented in co-operation with the Irish Software Association, Intune Networks, KEMP Technologies, and Sanctum Networks. The symposium is designed to be a gathering of international SDN luminaries, Irish companies already on the leading edge of SDN, employees of multinational companies with facilities in Ireland, and energetic entrepreneurs and investors.

SDN takes the traditional manual management of network routers and switches and enables skilled professionals to control the configuration via software and applications.

This shift is not dissimilar to the move to virtualisation of servers over the last decade and it is a move that is being embraced by technology companies intent on building their own infrastructure and data centres to their own specifications.

The Open Networking Foundation was founded in 2011 by Deutsche Telecom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo! to improve networking through SDN and standardize the OpenFlow protocol and related technologies.

Pitt explained that until recently CIOs and IT managers were at the mercy of networking equipment vendors who decided the innovation curve for networking technology.

“They would have built the chips, wrote their own operating systems and the software to control it and if you wanted them to install a feature it would possibly have taken three years and when it arrives they would sell it to all of your competitors too in order to justify the spend on R&D.”

On-demand networking

Proponents of SDN believe that like the advent of on-demand computing via the cloud as well as desktop and server virtualization before it, the power to rapidly deploy networking solutions will give companies greater command of their own destiny.

In a world where massive data traffic flows to and from data centres and across the world is critical to providing optimum customer experiences, the enthusiasm for SDN is palpable.

“If they can move more quickly on the hardware costs then they can save on the operating costs,” Pitt said, referring to the scale of traffic being managed and directed by players like Google and Amazon.

“These organisations have so many networking devices in their data centres, they need to be able to reduce costs dramatically.

“Google has embraced SDN in its global network of data centres which are dispersed across a wide area. The company has the power to completely redesign its networks using SDN and OpenFlow protocols so they can do centralized traffic engineering and decide what traffic goes where and when.

“This has served to increase the utilisation of its global network from 30pc to over 95pc.”

Prior to joining the ONF, Pitt was dean of the school of engineering at Santa Clara University and holder of the Sobrato Chair in Engineering. Before that Pitt spent over 20 years developing network architecture and standards for companies like IBM, HP, Bay Networks and Nortel.

Pitt said that SDN is being embraced by computer hardware manufacturers including Dell and IBM as well as software giants like Oracle.

He said the network equipment vendors are the last ones to the party.

“It has been frustrating for IT people to watch. All these years of being able to put software applications into virtual machines and servers and move them around through automated programs at a click of a mouse. Yet they hadn’t been able to do that with network switching equipment.

“This movement towards SDN is enabling them to do exactly that. It is really making networking work just like computing does today and make it a proper part of the computing experience.”

The movement towards SDN has been driven by advances in packet processing and advances in silicon processor technology. “It’s there for the taking for the networking industry.”

The battle for skills

Pitt’s core message on 30 June in Dublin will be around ensuring sufficient numbers of people are educated and trained in the emerging SDN programming technologies.

“The impact of SDN on IT organisations will be significant in the coming decade. Lots of people can manually configure routers to change course. But those skills will become less and less required and we’ll need more and more SDN programmers.

“A lot of people in the technology and telecoms industries will be wondering what SDN will mean for them either as a professional or what it will mean for the companies they work for. They will want to know how they will be procuring equipment and what skills they will need to develop.

“All new technologies will require a professional cadre to make the adjustment. This means tremendous opportunities.”

Pitt concluded that since the internet bubble burst in 2001 there were very few network equipment start-ups in the decade that followed.

“Now you can start a networking company with two guys and a dog. And all you need to be able to do is write software to meet a long tail of unmet users’ needs and desires.”

Dan Pitt will be speaking at Ireland’s first SDN symposium to explore SDN’s potential within the country. The event takes place at 9am on Monday 30 June at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years