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IETF standards are 'band-aids on top of band-aids' says SDN veteran

Open Networking Foundation executive director Dr Dan Pitt tells El Reg net admins have to reskill, fast

Interview With the Open Networking Foundation preparing to take a direct presence in Australia, networking veteran and the Foundation's executive director Dr Dan Pitt came within reach of our operatives at Vulture South. So we interviewed him.

Pitt took up his role at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) after years hanging around with names only memorable to those who remember the excitement of the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s until 2011 Pitt stayed away from an industry become dull and derivative.

That changed with the advent of software defined networking (SDN), he said. Since March 2011, Pitt told us, what's driven him is to get the answer to the question “what does it take to get this into the market”?

That, he said, goes far beyond the surface understanding of ONF as a standards development body. The OpenFlow protocol, which the ONF inherited from Stanford University, is just a substrate for the important stuff – configuration, management, security, and how to make SDN technologies work with different chipsets.

To turn SDN to the benefit of operators, Pitt said, all the different pieces have to be in place: the northbound Layer 4-7 services, network function virtualisation, and end user packages.

The success of ONF depends on a sustainable ecosystem that covers telecommunications service providers, ISPs, data centre operators, and enterprises.

For someone with Pitt's very long networking credentials (including stints with IBM, HP, Bay Networks and Nortel), it's interesting to note his belief that SDN is also changing the role and importance of standards in the networking business.

The IETF standards process, he said, has become “band-aids on top of band-aids”.

Citing initiatives like the Open Compute Project, he said, “as networking becomes more of a computing task, interfaces become implementations of software that aren't across a wire protocol.

“Standards are less important, because you're doing more with computation.”

The open source approach, he said, means that components that don't need vendor differentiation are opened up reasonably quickly, so everyone can collaborate on them.

“That gets you efficient development, and the commonality improves interoperability”, he said – without the long wait for a standard, or the 18 months-plus it takes for a vendor to build a feature into a product.

Not that the plumbing-level standardisation is irrelevant: it's something that Pitt cited as a barrier to adoption of SDN.

“How do you buy a switch that does what you want, has all the features? How do you integrate: not just the switch, but the management tools?”

Over in the packet-optical networking world, he said, we still need to integrate the control planes so there's just one to manage the packet paths and the optical paths.

This relates well to the certification initiatives announced in October.

Whether it's in enterprises or network operators, Pitt said, the success of SDN depends on getting people skilled up to the new way of working.

A networking sysadmin's day-to-day is manual configuration, which is “slow and expensive, and introduces error” (something vividly demonstrated last week in a widespread Google Cloud outage).

SDN is a huge change for those sysadmins, simply because “they don't do programming”, Pitt said. “We can automate the configuration, the provisioning, the self-provisioning.”

Only, however, if there are people to take charge of the software.

“The network operator has to figure out a few things: how much software development do they want to keep in-house? How much IT do you want to keep in-house?”

When it's all about the great big switch and the great big router, Pitt said, “it's hard to make the network an instrument of business strategy”.

If networking change requests run on a twelve week cycle, you can't respond to a requirement that will exist for five hours one evening (for example, to create a particular set of network services around a Taylor Swift concert).

It's an old story, one which IT has promised for years, and never really delivered: “If the network becomes part of how the enterprise makes money, the CIO becomes someone who contributes to others' profit centres,” Pitt remarked.

“Someone has to write the software that defines the network. This takes time!

“And then there is the looming large obstacle of culture. Organisations – SDN changes skill sets, changes processes, vendor relationships, procurement, business process and culture. That's is the hardest thing to do.”

Dan Pitt will be in Australia during December for the OpenTech Oz SDN Symposium. ®

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