Future networks – towards a softwarization of networks

Posted on: February 12, 2015 by

From a network connecting large computers in universities in its early days, the Internet has grown to such an extent that its inventors today say that their testing prototype has far outreached what it was designed for. Indeed, these Internet pioneers were far from imagining that one day, so many computers and objects would be connected and that the IP address space, i.e. the system that is used by objects to be reached in the Internet, would reach its limits. Today, devices ranging from small, low power sensors to large servers with multiple network cards residing in datacenters use the same set of protocols to connect with other devices and to the global Internet. This highlights the beauty of the initial design of the Internet, but several issues arise from the variety of ways the Internet is used for.

While until a few years ago, networks were built from back boxes embedding specific hardware provided by telecommunication equipment manufacturers, the networking world is undergoing a major revolution: the software revolution. Recent advances in chip development, hardware design and virtualization provide flexibility and potential agility of software development in the design and deployment of data networks through a major technological trend: software-defined networking (SDN). According to SDN thinkers such as Scott Shenker [1], this move towards softwarization will allow network architecture and management to move from craftsmanship to more systematic, industrial and abstracted methods to manage large networks and to meet quality of service requirements.

There are numerous applications of this softwarization of networking. Software defined networking is currently being deployed by large datacenters managers such as Atos in their infrastructure to facilitate and automate the deployment, management and control of network equipment and servers; thus shrinking the time to deploy a new server or network switch from hours or days to minutes or even seconds. To that extent SDN is used together with virtualization or even containerization in order to articulate how processing, storage and networking capabilities are deployed together. Internet services providers and telecom operators are working on Network Function Virtualization to rationalize their network and to be able to quickly deploy new applications and services.

Yet, network softwarization also raises some questions. The use of this set of technologies enabling sensors or objects to connect to the network according to their needs and capabilities is still an open question. Within the Scientific Community, we are particularly investigating how this can help users configure their devices to reach the Internet or how it can be used to allow devices speaking a variety of proprietary protocols to understand one another and exchange data together. On a more fundamental aspect, network softwarization also raises lots of unanswered questions among the SDN thinkers. If we compare networks to a computer, the software tools that we currently develop and deploy in the networking world can be compared to device drivers for computers. Now that we have the drivers to manipulate the network, we are still missing the operating system. This operating system will allow us as a community to deploy application manipulating abstractions of the network rather than having to take into account each single component. Yet, this operating system is still to design.

So keep in touch with us, the network softwarization is still in its early days, and the future is exciting.

[1] Scott Shenker, The Future of Networking, and the Past of Protocols, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHeyuD89n1Y

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