Integrating optical networking in to the data centre
The great thing about virtualisation, or re-defining physical resources at a higher abstracted software level (software defined data centre/network/storage etc. as the terminology de jure goes), is that those deploying applications no longer have to worry about managing said physical resources, they just request what they need. However, obviously those physical resources have not disappeared; at a lower level some geek still has to do all the configuration and integration to enable presentation of a seamless set of resources at a higher level.
When it comes to SDN (software defined networking), as is often the case with virtualisation, the challenge is integrating the old with the new. In particular this will often mean co-ordinating legacy copper-wire based Ethernet deployments with new high speed fibre optic networks, albeit the data link level. Being able to do so also enables storage area networks (SANs), that have often been separate and may already be optic fibre-based, to be integrated in to a single networking pool. The main standards body co-ordinating such issues is the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and its standard for an approach to enable open SDN is OpenFlow.
Being able to integrate old and new networks is worthwhile. Continuing to make use of existing 1 gigabit/second Ethernet (1GbE) capacity networks makes sense; in most cases they will still be capable of serving many local area requirements. However, as requirements grow and organisations upgrade to 10GbE and look forward to 40GbE, adding higher speed and capacity optical fibre makes sense too. This helps future proof against on-going growth in network traffic volumes and enables network virtualisation across wider areas (e.g. between data centres). For service providers it makes it easier to 'rent out' network resource piecemeal; for example initiating a customer backup over local Ethernet from a server in one data centre, moving the flow to an optical link to access a second server in another data centre, allocating a set amount of optical bandwidth for a specified time to complete the task.
The problem is that historically synching up Ethernet and optic fibre-based networks and managing them as a single resource has not been straight forward. Typically this has been done using dedicated power-hungry bulky chassis with separate network cards and/or blade servers for each network module residing. These are expensive and complicated to deploy, driving up the cost and complexity of network integration projects.
One vendor, Vello Systems, reckons that its alternative approach has cracked the problem. It has developed what it describes as an SDN operating system called VellOS that is Linux-based and runs on a standard server, taking up just a single rack unit with no integral network cards or blades. VellOS is built to support the OpenFlow standard, indeed, Vello wrote optical extensions for it. The aim is to free-up networking teams from the complexity and cost of network integration to get on with deploying applications to VellOS, such as the backup example described earlier.
In conjunction with ONF, Vello is just about to launch a new initiative call the Open Source Optics (OSO) consortium. This will include the launch of an open source software agent that Vello hopes will further accelerate the adoption of OpenFlow for optical networking. The network integration is abstracted to the software level based on new OpenFlow extensions; optical devices can be provisioned in the same way as traditional Ethernet ones. One of its early customers is the giant Asian service provider PacNet that is using VellOS for flexible provisioning of virtual network capacity to its many customers.
Vello was founded in 2009 and is based in California. Whilst VellOS itself is developed in the USA, encouraged by funding from Investment Northern Ireland (INI), Vello has set up an applications development group in Belfast, bringing jobs with Silicon Valley type perks (such as share options) to a region of the UK that sorely needs such stimulus. The initiative is expected to create 72 jobs over three years. The young talent that Vello plans to bring on board faces a bright future, as a recent Quocirca research report shows, European firms are crying out for more network talent (Quocirca, 2013, In demand: the culture of online service provision).
OpenFlow/SDN is not the only show in town. Many network and data centre service providers are looking an overlapping initiative: network function virtualisation (NFV). NFV enables the virtualisation of network equipment functions (router, switches, firewalls etc.) onto industry standard high volume servers, each functions can then be manipulated individually, rather than being embedded in a single virtual platform as with SDN.
However the SDN/NVF story plays out, Vello looks to be in strong position to benefit from the growing use of optic-fibre networking to support increasing network capacity requirements in and across data centres. Northern Ireland has done well to secure a stake in its future.