Intel lays foundations for SDN gear that could shake up networking

Intel is introducing reference designs and software for switches and virtual switches

If software-defined networking ultimately changes the landscape of networking, Intel could be one of the biggest beneficiaries -- and might be one of the reasons.

SDN is intended to take the control of networks out of the equipment that forwards packets and into software that could run on standard computing platforms. If that vision comes true, then makers of sheer computing horsepower could find a whole new market. Intel is a prime candidate.

Though actually moving data through a network will still require specialized silicon of the sort that Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks and merchant chip vendors such as Broadcom make, SDN proposes that decisions about those movements can be made on servers.

"All the control-layer function which is being separated out in SDN is definitely in Intel's wheelhouse, and they could very effectively play in that market," Yankee Group analyst Jennifer Pigg said.

Intel is diving head-first into SDN at the Open Networking Summit (ONS) on Wednesday, not by unveiling switches or routers of its own but by pushing two reference designs that other manufacturers can use as the basis of future SDN products. The company is also formally announcing its DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch, a software system that is based on Intel's Data Plane Development Kit, which is a set of tools for functions such as memory management and queueing. The DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch allows for moving packets through standard Intel hardware quickly and efficiently, said Rose Schooler, vice president of the company's Intel Architecture Group, in a media briefing.

Intel has tried to gain a foothold in networking equipment in the past, with mixed results. For example, the standardized ATCA (Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture), which Intel helped to promote nearly 10 years ago for easing development and allowing more innovation, has been adopted mostly by smaller vendors, Yankee analyst Pigg said. But the current movement toward separating control from forwarding gives the company a better shot, she said.

At ONS, Intel is introducing the Open Networking Platform Switch Reference Design and Server Reference Design, plus the DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch. All are available immediately to system manufacturers and can be modified based on Intel customers' requirements.

The Switch Reference Design, which was code-named Sea Cliff Trail, is a 1U top-of-rack switch for linking servers in a data center. It has 48 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports and four 40-Gigabit Ethernet uplinks. The platform is designed to use an Intel Xeon CPU as well as switching silicon derived from Intel's acquisition of Fulcrum Microsystems, Schooler said. It has a Linux-based OS from Intel's Wind River subsidiary and includes management APIs (application programming interfaces) that let third parties write applications to communicate with SDN controllers. OpenFlow and Open vSwitch API support are built in.

The Server Reference Design is a hardware platform for virtualized switches. It's designed as a dual-socket server for Intel's Ivy Bridge Xeon CPUs, due later this year. It includes the same software, plus the DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch. OpenFlow, Open vSwitch and OpenStack API support are built in.

Among other things, the Open Networking Platform will help to make virtualization feasible in service-provider networks, where requirements for low latency and voice jitter have prevented it until now, Schooler said. SDN promises to help service providers lower their capital, energy and operating costs, which are rising faster than their revenues, plus help them introduce new services more quickly, she said. Specialized, proprietary equipment with separate software stacks on each network device has hampered centralized management of enterprise and service-provider networks, according to Intel.

Schooler said Intel's new reference designs fit in with the mission of the OpenDaylight Project, a multivendor initiative to develop an open-source SDN framework, which Intel joined last week at its inception. Intel shares OpenDaylight's vision of a common SDN architecture based on code selected through a "meritocracy," which will allow for more innovation in networking, she said. Intel is also working with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute's NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) project, aimed at virtualized service-provider networks.

Intel will target network vendors of all kinds to implement systems based on its reference designs. They may have the most impact when competitive vendors start to find their way into service-provider networks, now dominated by the likes of Cisco and Juniper, Yankee's Pigg said. Those new players could include startups as well as more established vendors such as Brocade or Extreme Networks. Intel's designs could save them time and money in getting SDN products into the market, she said.

Those new products may first be installed at small third-tier carriers and gradually gain acceptance at bigger carriers that appreciate the lower cost, she said. At enterprises, which are typically less conservative than service providers, such platforms might make even quicker inroads, Pigg said. Eventually, the dominance of today's biggest networking vendors might break down.

In the best-case scenario for Intel, it could end up dominating hardware architectures in networking just as it does in computing. But whether this will happen, and whether SDN will bring about the revolution in networking that Intel and others hope for, is far from certain, Pigg said.

"'Could this be a major inflection point in the industry?' is really the big question that faces SDN," Pigg said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

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