Cheaper network hardware and more efficient networking software are being promised by suppliers, through the development of new management systems. But market participants have expressed doubts as to whether vested interests in the networking hardware market will allow it to happen.
At the NetEvents enterprise IT symposium in Garmisch this week, the Open Network Foundation (ONF) promoted the concept of software defined networking (SDN). SDN aims to allow the users of network hardware to fully control their networks in the way they want without being blocked by the proprietary controls traditionally contained in the expensive "black boxes" sold by the networking hardware vendors.
Dan Pitt, executive director of the ONF, said: "There are lots of networking protocols which make it very labour intensive to manage a network. There are too many "band aids" being used to keep a network working, and these band aids can actually cause many of the problems elsewhere in the network."
Pitt said there was too much pressure on network managers not to "screw up", when instead they should be able to develop their networks and introduce software solutions "to add value to the business - which is where we come in".
SDN promises to efficiently automate network configuration, improve network performance and reduce total cost of ownership.
At the heart of the SDN movement, supported by Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo - which sit on the ONF board - is OpenFlow, a communications protocol that gives access to the forwarding plane of a network switch or router over the network.
It is no surprise that these large service providers are keen on OpenFlow because they use thousands of expensive black boxes in their large data centres around the world. OpenFlow can also be used in smaller campus environments and in enterprise data centres controlling LANs and WANs.
OpenFlow allows the path of network packets through a network of switches to be determined by software running on a separate, basic and cheaper server. This separation of the control from the forwarding allows for more sophisticated traffic management than what is feasible using access control lists (ACLs) and routing protocols, bypassing some of the more expensive proprietary software sold with networking hardware.
Although this month HP said it was adopting OpenFlow-enabled network equipment - supporting the standard on 16 of its Ethernet switch products - there are concerns that many other vendors could delay the wider deployment of the technology as they could potentially be cannibalising their own revenues if they adopt it.
Analyst Gartner recently published a paper, Open Networking Foundation Formed - The Battle to Commoditise Network Hardware Begins. The report says: "If OpenFlow gains traction the core data centre market could see significant disruption, with dramatically falling equipment prices."
At NetEvents, Gartner analyst Ian Keene outlined the opposition that the ONF could face. He said that while OpenFlow was potentially good for data centres as a result of allowing them to use more basic or "dumber" cheaper switches, it wasn't very good for the suppliers.
Keene said the data centre switch market was worth $6bn in 2010, with the top three suppliers controlling 82 percent of the market. The service provider switch market was worth $13bn, he said, and the top four suppliers control 85 percent of it.
"Are these vendors simply going to give up propietary software control of the network without a fight? Probably not." He cited previous advances in networking technology like ATM (asynchronous transfer mode), where the ATM Forum was hampered by suppliers delaying rather than accelerating the passing of profit threatening standards.
A panel of service providers and equipment suppliers discussed OpenFlow at NetEvents, and warnings of potential delays in its wider adoption were there to see.
For instance, Marc Lasserre, director of IP standards at Alcatel Lucent, said: "I thought we were moving away from centralisation. Users have to ask themselves whether they want to move back to centrally controlled boxes which can cause problems in themselves. Decentralised boxes across the network [usually containing more expensive propietary software] bring their own benefits like network efficiency, network reliability and network security."