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Open Networking Summit: NEC waits for no one; SDN 'ready to go'

While other vendors move cautiously into OpenFlow and software-defined networking, NEC continues to release actual product with v2 of its ProgrammableFlow ecosystem.

While most networking vendors are still testing and developing OpenFlow technology, NEC continues to release actual product, this week unveiling v2 of its ProgrammableFlow software at the Open Networking Summit. Enhancements include a drag-and-drop user interface for virtual-network configuration, and even more granular flow management for performance assurance.

On Tuesday, NEC chairman Kaoru Yano's tone was distinct from the more cautious speakers who preceded him on the Open Networking Summit keynote stage: "The main purpose of today's talk," Yano said, "is to tell you that SDN [software-defined networking] is ready to go."

Last spring, NEC was the first vendor to release a generally available OpenFlow portfolio, including the PF5240 and PF5820 switches, a controller and a management console.

The company subsequently announced a partnership with IBM, which released OpenFlow-friendly switches in January; at the summit this week, NEC demonstrated interoperability with Brocade switches, though a formal partnership between the two has not yet been announced.

While NEC's portfolio includes switches, the company has made it clear that it will work to interoperate with as many switching vendors as possible. After all, the whole idea of an open standard interface, said Yano, is to "give users an option to have a multivendor network and to program that network with software."

With ProgrammableFlow, traffic steering and super-granular management

With ProgrammableFlow, users can provision network tenants that each have their own set of policy and management rules, as well as security. They can manage and program these tenants from a central interface.

In the previous version of ProgrammableFlow, users had to know NEC scripting to provision these tenants using NEC's Virtual Tenant Network (VTN) technology, but now they can spin up virtual networks using a drag-and-drop interface that immediately maps to the underlying network topology. Don Clark, NEC director of business development and IT platform technologies, jokes that it used to take "an engineer with an IQ of more than 145" to run an NEC OpenFlow network, but that's no longer the case. On a more serious note, an easy user-interface may address the very real issue that there simply isn't enough OpenFlow talent in the market to run these networks.

Other features in ProgrammableFlow include a policy-based traffic-steering method called Policy Based Multipath Routing, which enables engineers to choose the physical path traffic takes across the network by path policy and link availability.

"With policy-based routing, we can now say that HTTP traffic goes [on one path] while storage traffic goes on another," Clark said. The same could be done to improve the performance of unified communications and video. Policy-based routing also enables users to push traffic into specific appliances, such as firewalls.

Finally, ProgrammableFlow also includes performance-enhancement technology, such as Network Service/Appliance Failover, which aims to improve application performance by continuously monitoring network services with the ability to redirect traffic when necessary. It also features a bandwidth-monitoring tool that periodically gathers information from OpenFlow switches on the state of physical ports.

What's next for NEC ProgrammableFlow?

NEC will continue to work on interoperability with as many vendors as possible and to contribute to the development of so-called north applications -- the applications that live above the control plane and can help with network management, Clark said. As part of that, look for complete automation of software-defined networking in the next version of ProgrammableFlow, he added. Eventually the creation and management of these virtual networks will be as dynamic as server virtualization and the cloud.

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