Dell EMC and BT have announced a proof of concept (PoC) project that could lead to a significant advance in networking functionality and flexibility.
The research, which is being conducted at BT Labs in Adastral Park, Suffolk, England, focuses on disaggregated switches. These switches can be the linchpins of networks that are more flexible and responsive to users by employing standard open network switches such as those found in data centers. These switches will be driven by specialized software.
The press release suggested the goal:
In contrast to the traditional integrated network switches currently used by operators and enterprises around the world, disaggregated switching uses merchant silicon based switching systems combined with either commercially available or open source system software. This represents a significant shift architecturally, applying server-like principles to the delivery of dynamic network services over fixed-line and wireless networks.
The testing will compare Dell EMC disaggregated switches against integrated switches in terms of performance, economics and programmability, the press release says. The key question for non-engineers is how what is being tested advances networks in general and software-defined networks (SDNs) in particular.
The answer may be that such an approach will enable SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) to more fully reach their potential. Nathan Cranford at RCRWireless defines integrated and disaggregation in the context of switching. In an integrated switch, hardware, the operating system and the tools all come from the same vendor. Disaggregation changes that. In other words, the general evolution from proprietary to open is brought more deeply than ever before into the equipment upon which networks rely.
In SDN, the data and the forwarding – the emails, video and other elements being sent on one hand and the instruction on where it is going and how it should be sent on the other – are separated. Cranford seems to be saying that the value of doing this is not fully realized if there is vendor lock-in at each level. Enabling different vendors to work together within the switch greatly enhances flexibility:
Dell’s platform may be able to provide additional use cases like bandwidth calendaring, in which network bandwidth can be added, deleted or modified. The key benefits of disaggregated switch platform are lower costs, the ability to run other software on the switch and decreased vendor lock-in. However, some analysts think the advantages of a disaggregated switch platform are exaggerated given price reduction is a major force driving the concept.
BT and Dell EMC are not the only companies working on open networking systems, of course. The conceptual framework is from the data center world. Sujal Das at Cloud Computing News takes a deep dive on the technology involved. The bottom line is that what happens in the data center and out in the network is different, but beginning to converge. At some point, the two may fully harmonize. The Dell EMC testing at BT Labs may be a start.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.