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Who Does What: SDN Controllers

Light Reading runs down your choices for SDN controllers.

Mitch Wagner

December 5, 2014

18 Min Read
Who Does What: SDN Controllers

The controller is the logical control center of the SDN network, communicating with switches via its "southbound" interface to provide networking instructions and communicating with applications via its "northbound" interface.

In SDN's purest form, the controller has all the intelligence: Switches are dumb, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) devices that are managed by the controllers.

Operators that find this pure approach too rigorous can instead opt for an overlay, espoused by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) and other vendors. In the overlay approach, the SDN network runs as a software layer on top of existing networks. Switches can be either COTS or proprietary.

SDN controller deployments are mostly to be found in data centers currently, but they have also been deployed in wide area enterprise networks and are creeping into wide area service provider networks too as carrier-class capabilities come to market and business cases are identified.

SDN, in theory, allows networks to be programmable, flexible and cheaper to run. It's foundational to the New IP -- the transformation of carrier networks from cost centers to revenue drivers delivering value to customers. (See Introducing 'The New IP' .)

Light Reading took a quick look at the SDN controller marketplace and compiled a list of vendors and open source organizations that are offering, or have developed, SDN controllers or the code that can be used to develop one (in the case of the open source community).

The list is split into two: vendors with commercial products; and the open source projects/organizations that are engaging the wider community to develop SDN controller software. Many of the commercial vendor controllers are based on open source code, particularly that developed by OpenDaylight , a collaborative project set up by the Linux Foundation .

Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) recently threw its weight behind open source SDN, introducing the Vyatta Controller based on OpenDaylight. (See Brocade Debuts OpenDaylight SDN Controller.)

In the commercial marketplace, VMWare and Cisco are the two giants competing for control. Cisco's SDN weapon is its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), while VMware's arms itself with its NSX software.

Cisco and VMware support the philosophy that intelligence should be in the software, but Cisco's proposition supports its own proprietary hardware that shares network management responsibilities with its controller. VMware runs as a layer atop other companies' networking hardware.

Other companies fighting for SDN market share have mostly developed products that are based on the OpenFlow protocol and its associated networking philosophy. OpenFlow is the vanguard of the pure SDN approach.

And it's not just the vendors that are developing SDN controllers: AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is developing a home-grown SDN controller. (See AT&T Working on Home-Grown SDN Controller for Later in 2014 .)

Want to know more about SDN? Visit Light Reading's SDN architectures content channel.

One of the major considerations for data center and network operators looking to deploy SDN controllers is whether they are truly interoperable and multivendor: One of the main promises of SDN is that it will free operators from vendor lock-in.

Multivendor support is a big deal, notes Roz Roseboro, senior analyst at Heavy Reading . "Operators don't want to be tied down. They don't want the choice of controllers to influence what switches they can use. They want to mix and match with whatever integration work is required," Roseboro says. Operators want to be able to work with the networking hardware they have, without ripping anything out.

Operators also need to consider whether to adopt a centralized or distributed approach, says Roseboro, who is preparing a report on SDN controllers. "There are some who believe there should be a master controller that watches over everything, and others who believe some of the intelligence should be on the hypervisor so it can make local decisions," she says.

So, here is our list of SDN controllers. If there are others out there, we can easily add them in as they emerge. Let us know about additions and updates using the comment board below.

Next Page: Commercial Controllers

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

Commercial Controllers

Company: Active Broadband Networks

Controller: Active Resource Controller. For more information, see this page.

About: The ARC is designed to provide real-time control of NFV infrastructure, IP flow telemetry data for service and application visibility, big data technology for managing service personalization, and dynamic service profiling and control mechanisms to automatically take action in response to changing network conditions and service utilization based on customer entitlements. ARC is a component of Active Broadband Networks Inc. 's Software-Defined Broadband Network Gateway (SD-BNG).

Find out more:

Company: Adara Networks

Controllers: Sky, a distributed OpenFlow-based SDN controller (see this page for more details), and Horizon, a "meta-controller" designed for SDN management in multi-vendor, multi-protocol networks, whether virtual or physical. See this page for more information.

About: Adara Networks has developed a suite of applications, including its controllers, that provide every aspect of a software-defined computing and networking environment.

Find out more:

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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