FlexiWAN pushes SD-WAN into an open source architecture

Israel-based startup flexiWAN is looking to shake up the SD-WAN sector by launching it in an open source architecture.

Among the goals of flexiWAN co-founder and CEO Amir Zmora is to give enterprises and service providers the ability to differentiate their SD-WAN services instead of relying on SD-WAN vendors to define them.

After years of working in the VoIP space, and after attending numerous industry conferences where SD-WAN was a hot topic, Zmora said that he came to the realization that SD-WAN solutions were closed black boxes that didn't enable innovation. 

"What I heard from service providers was that they had no way to differentiate their SD-WAN services," Zmora said. "They said they didn't have any way to do special things for their applications, or do some segmentation between customers and provide different levels of services to stand out.

"Enterprises also want to do things that are special for their traffic, and they can't do that right now. I decided that it's about time to do something about it, and to create a different approach to SD-WAN."

flexiWAN's software, which is currently in proof-of-concept trials with a small number of enterprises and service providers, includes a centrally-managed SD-WAN solution in open source that includes integration points in the core of the systems that can integrate third-party logic from various companies.

Currently, service providers are largely locked in with vendors that serve different domains. By enabling third-party integration, flexiWAN can break the vendor lock-in by creating an open source ecosystem with vendors that specialize in various areas such as deep packet inspection (DPI), security, WAN optimization, session border control, VoIP, and other traffic-specific optimization logic.

"We're not building a router from scratch, so we use a virtual router," Zmora said. "We are doing things inside of and on top of a virtual router; management and orchestration, automation, all of these things. But we view it as an infrastructure and into this infrastructure, you can integrate additional elements that implement the logic.

"So if you want to do DPI, you can decide which DPI engine you want to take and put inside.  A service provider that wants to do something with an application will signal to its SD-WAN all kinds of things to do inside the application, like traffic monitoring. Maybe instead of just having an overlay over the network, it can create a relationship between the SD-WAN overlay and the network itself."

The core flexiWAN solution also can enable application-specific detection and optimization logic by software-as-a-service applications. It also can integrate with open source DevOps tools, and even with other SD-WAN vendors.

"A service provider will be able to tell its SD-WAN vendor 'I want your secret sauce technology to plug in to this infrastructure of SD-WAN and replace what we have provided," Zmora said. "So, maybe an vendor provided some packet application algorithm the service provider doesn't like, or even the complete suite of all the SD-WAN logic that goes inside, they can go and replace it."

He added, "So the idea is to create some kind of an ecosystem of these elements that independent software vendors will be able to provide and companies will be able to provide, and put it into open source as well. Companies will be able to sell elements of what goes inside. Salesforce, Microsoft, or anybody who's providing services in the cloud can write some logic that would instruct the SD-WAN on how to handle elements inside their encrypted traffic."

In order to be successful, flexiWAN obviously needs buy-in from vendors, enterprises and service providers in order to create the open source ecosystem. Zmora will also need to figure out the licensing angle of an open source ecosystem, according to Roy Chua, founder and principal analyst at AvidThink.

"In open source, there's a wide range of different licenses, ranging from Apache to more restrictive kinds of license and anything in between," Chu said. "We'll see where he ends up, in that licensing scheme.

"I would say depending on that, and depending on how he pushes it out, that there might be uptake from carriers or vendors to potentially build on it."

Chua said he has been waiting to see an open-source approach to SD-WAN. He said there were two elements to SD-WAN; the SD-WAN element and the universal CPE element.

"So, on the SD-WAN side of things, which is, I think, where he's (Zmora) starting, there are elements in place in open source where you can try to cobble things together to make an SD-WAN solution," Chua said. "So, there's IPSec or an open SSL VPN, firewalls, things like that.

"What's missing is that cloud control policy elements that aren't quite there. So, there's no open source equivalent, that I know of, on the whole cloud control side for the centralized policies, centralized configuration and of all the different SD-WAN components out there."

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SD-WAN has yet to find a significant foothold in open source, although it is an active topic at MEF. For universal CPE (uCPE), Chua said he's been waiting for AT&T to put its disaggregated network operating system (dNOS), which AT&T calls Vyatta, into the Linux Foundation Networking Disaggregated Network Operating System (DANOS) project. At last week's Open Source Summit, AT&T's Andre Fuetsch said AT&T was using Vyatta in its white boxes, including the internet white boxes that are now in production, and that AT&T would put dNOS into open source soon.

"They (AT&T) were supposed to put that into the Linux Foundation last year," Chua said, adding that Zmora is working on providing underlying configuration mechanisms for uCPE as well.

"I'm hopeful that he'll succeed there because no one's built it," Chua said. "His premise is potentially viable, but we need to see how the market takes it up. It will be very dependent on how much base he builds out, and how robust that base is. I think that all needs to be figured out."

Chua said managed service providers, communications service providers and cloud providers would be more likely to tap into flexiWAN since all but the largest enterprises typically don't have enough resources. Smaller organizations could choose to go with managed SD-WAN services from vendors, or even DIY SD-WAN solutions

"I think that what Amir (Zmora) doing is interesting," Chua said. "Hopefully, the code base is sufficiently robust right when it comes out. Hopefully, the licensing is appropriately friendly for the carrier's looking to use it as a differentiator, and that there is sufficient encouragement to contribute back into it."

Zmora said he was targeting general availability of flexiWAN's software toward the end of next year.