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Summary:

Vint Cerf is the father of the internet, so its worth listening to what he thinks the next generation of networking might enable. For him software-defined networking might fix some design flaws.

Vint Cerf at ONS
photo: Stacey Higginbotham

Vint Cerf, VP and chief internet evangelist at Google has a few regrets about the original design of the internet, but he’s hoping software defined networking may help right those wrongs. Cerf spoke at the Open Networking Summit Tuesday in Santa Clara, Calif., where he juxtaposed the creation of the internet and the evolution of the world wide web with the development of software defined networking.

He began with a rueful acknowledgment that back in the early 70s, when creating the addressing scheme for the internet, 32 bits were enough. The point of the story — we ran out of 32-bit addresses two years ago — was to illustrate how the common knowledge at the time influenced the architectural decisions the creators of the internet made.

Yet, 40 years later, the internet is still the valuable foundation of our communications infrastructure, and Cerf hopes that in building out this next generation networks we learn a bit from the creation of the internet. For example, he calls for the creation of open standards where differentiation doesn’t come from companies patenting protocols, but rather from branding their services or branding their unique implementations of a standard protocol. That’s because interoperability is important for building networks that are stable and resilient. As Cerf said: “Stability is your friend in networking environments.”

“If you want things to interoperate, standards are important,” Cerf said. “That’s not to say you can’t explore new ideas, but when you want something big to happen then you need to think about standards.”

In that same vein, Cerf also explained how as companies build out software defined networks they should consider the things that made the internet a success: the loose coupling of the gear that underlies the internet as opposed to a heavily integrated and brittle solution; a modular approach allowing new companies to develop solutions that might work between layers in the stack; and open source solutions, which are recommended but not required.

SDN can build a web for the future.

Cerf then went into some of the opportunities that SDN can offer to improve some of the shortcomings of the internet. For example, the current way we route traffic relies on the network having a physical port to send a packet to, but the OpenFlow protocol changes the destination address from a physical port to a table entry, which enables a new type of networking. One that might be more suited to the collaborative web we’re building today.

Content based routing also could be an option — something we’ve covered at our Structure conference in 2011. In content based routing you take the content of a packet and use that to determine what to do with it. It turns routing into something that’s closer to the way Twitter works as opposed to how the U.S. Postal System does. For example you would look at the content of a packet and route it to people who said they want to receive that information. It becomes multi-cast instead of a one-to-one connection.

As for the core tenet of software defined networking, separating the control plane from the data plane, Cerf said. “I wish we had done that in the internet design, but we didn’t.”

But that also means people can build new networks that resemble older networks while sneaking in revolutionary new features. Cerf is excited about the ability of those building SDN products and networks to mimic the core functions of today’s networks in order to drive adoption but then introduce something new like content-centric routing. Or perhaps they can implement better security to protect people from identity theft, from inadvertently becoming zombies in a botnet attack or from any number of security threats that exists online.

Cerf is confident that SDN can help address those issues and more. He envisions using SDN to perhaps define areas where people can access intellectual property in a controlled manner that may prevent people from making illegal copies. SDN might also be a way to bridge the divides between different networks today.

He pointed out that when the internet was developed researchers built different networks depending on the medium, so a mobile network and a wireline network today don’t look the same to software running over those networks. You can’t run traffic seamlessly across both at the same time. With SDN you could.

He closed with a few examples of how SDN is helping Google, from its implementation of an intra-data center WAN to using software defined networks to boost the utilization of spectrum through tools like Google’s white space broadband database. This example, as well as the idea of creating a unified network using different medium, has me really excited to see what Google might do with its own fiber network and a corresponding Wi-Fi network.

  1. Stacey, Great article…
    Vint also said Google has been using OpenFlow/SDN inside its data center. We all suspected this for some time but Google has not acknowledged it until yesterday. That is a big news.

    I talked to a few Googlers and they confirm but don’t want to reveal more details. Let us see what Amin has to say in his talk today.

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    1. Guru, Google’s reached out to tell me that Vint misspoke on that front and that Google is not yet using it inside its data centers. Make of that, what you will I guess….

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