Why the cloud needs new forms of networking

Jason Hoffman (Joyent), Guido Appenzeller (Big Switch Networks), Martin Casado (Nicira Networks), Dante Malagrino (Embrane) - Structure 2011OpenFlow was definitely one of the hottest topics at GigaOM’s Structure conference this year, and everyone was talking about ways to improve networking for the cloud. But why does the cloud even need new networking technology? Hasn’t networking been solved many years ago? Joyent Co-founder and Chief Scientist Jason Hoffmann intentionally raised some very basic questions at the beginning of his panel about virtualized networks.

After all, he knew he was talking to some folks who knew the answers from working in the trenches: Big Switch Networks Co-Founder and CEO Guido Appenzeller said that networking hasn’t kept up with the innovation we’ve seen in the area of server virtualization. Enterprises now need half an hour to deploy a new server, he explained. Reconfiguring the network, on the other hand, takes an employee two days.

Nicira Networks CTO Martin Casado chimed in saying that this isn’t just too much time, but it also leads to too many errors. “Having a human in the loop to get work done is a really bad thing,” he said. And Embrane CEO Dante Malagrinò concluded that networks have become too static to work with the requirements of dynamic cloud architectures. “One of the big problems is the lack of programmability of the network,” he said.

OpenFlow, which is based on work done at Stanford University and intends to make networks smarter and more flexible, can be part of solving these issues. However, Casado cautioned that the technology won’t bring about world peace and solve all of our networking problems in the process. “OpenFlow is kind of hot and sexy, and people are talking about it a lot,” he said, adding that the real pioneers of network virtualization are Cisco (s CSCO) and VMWare, (s VMW) which aren’t going to adopt OpenFlow any time soon.

Speaking of incumbents: Appenzeller said that big companies are warming up to newer approaches of network virtualization, in part because they’re forced to keep up with pressure from other sectors of the industry. He said that he sees an open warfare going on between network, storage and computing vendors to define the future of the cloud, and concluded: “It’s an incredibly exciting time for networking right now.”