SDN SPECIAL: All about the acronyms – OTT, SDN and OCP

03 September 2013 | Richard Irving


What is it about over-the-top (OTT) players and their apparent determination to keep ahead of the curve in terms of software defined network (SDN) kit?

Last year Google set the world alight – and caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth at Cisco – when the search engine built its own switch, the Pluto switch, in order to complete the rollout of an SDN system on its data centre network, one of the largest networks in the world.

This June, Facebook joined the fray when Najam Ahmad, a former leading light at Microsoft, now director of engineering at the social media firm, confirmed that he was working on plans to “build the perfect switch” for SDN markets.

Ahmad says that the company is already looking at a number of potential use cases for SDN technology, including software solutions that would help apps deliver data to its vast bank of servers and others that would record receipt of those packets. To support that development, he says, Facebook is looking to build its own network hardware.

It has been here before. In 2011, it set about replacing its data centre infrastructure.

“We decided to honour our hacker roots and challenge convention by designing and building our very own software, servers and data centres from the ground up,” says Ahmad.

So successful was the initiative – the technology was 24% cheaper to build and 38% more efficient to run than Facebook’s existing technology – that the company decided to make it available as an open source platform, the Open Compute Project (OCP). So far, the project has focussed on building smarter, more scalable data centre technologies.

“What’s missing is that we are still connecting our data centres to the outside world using black-box switches that weren’t designed for deployment at scale, and don’t allow customers to modify or replace the software that runs on them,” says Frank Frankovsky, chairman of the OCP.

So Frankovsky is starting with a clean sheet of paper and plans to build his very own. A number of specialist SDN firms – including Big Switch Networks and VMware – have already signed up, and the Open Networking Foundation, which aims to standardise an operating system for SDN, is also involved.

”It is our hope that an open source switch will enable a faster pace of innovation in the development of networking hardware, and thus help SDN initiatives continue to evolve and flourish in general,” Frankovsky adds.

But if Frankovsky thinks that the OCP will get a free run at commoditising the switch market, he might be disappointed. Cisco’s John Chambers has already come out fighting, suggesting that any open source work on switching technology will automatically create “weaknesses”, that he will move swiftly to exploit.

“We will not leave that concept alone like we did SDN and allow other people to gain the high ground”, he said recently. “This time you will see us out of the gate and ahead of the game.”