SDN pioneer sees 5G economic model premised on SDN, NFV

As one of the pioneers of SDN, Stanford professor Nick McKeown very much believes SDN and NFV are at the foundation of 5G.

“I think the whole economic model of 5G is premised on SDN and NFV being commercially viable and practical and deployed,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the economics working unless significant parts of the infrastructure are based on SDN and NFV.”

While it’s still being formally defined in standards work, 5G is expected to support a broad range of use cases, and if it’s going to do that, the expectation is it will need the ability and agility to offer what’s needed at any given time without an operator having to overbuild for each one of these services. 

SDN arose out of work that McKeown did with UC Berkeley professor Scott Shenker; they founded Nicira Networks with Stanford graduate student Martin Casado, and their research led to the OpenFlow protocol. VMware acquired Nicira in 2012.

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Now chief scientist and co-founder at Barefoot Networks, McKeown remembers the early days of SDN where it overlapped with the early days of the big data centers; at that time, back in the 2006 time frame, webscale companies were new and the notion that data centers were going to be big was still a rather novel idea.

SDN was very much focused on eventually meeting the needs of the telcos; it was clear they were going to need it in light of growing capex and flat revenues. It just so happened that Google was looking for something sooner and was able to show the way and provide the requisite confidence in it that the telcos needed. The webscale companies’ requirements for forwarding were relatively simple compared to the telcos, he noted.

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Founded in 2013, Barefoot Networks developed its Tofino Switch, deemed the world's fastest P4-programmable switch chip. Barefoot is demonstrating Tofino at this week’s SDN NFV World Congress in The Hague, Netherlands. It’s also demonstrating its collaboration with Google Cloud whereby they’re collaborating to create an open source project under called P4 Runtime, an API for enabling communication between control plane and forwarding plane in an extensible and scalable manner. Barefoot and Google Cloud worked with the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) to integrate P4 Runtime with the ONOS controller.

AT&T and Deutsche Telekom are big supporters of P4 Runtime and happy to see it gain traction. “I would expect that others would fairly quickly follow,” in the spirit that they now provide a top-to-bottom solution, McKeown said.

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AT&T is also gaining support around the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP), the result of the Linux Foundation merging AT&T’s ECOMP with Open-O, bringing together the largest open source platforms. McKeown said that is encouraging, along with AT&T’s very public commitment to SDN as well as Google’s involvement. Together, the two are bringing many others with them.

Barefoot’s connection to Google has always been strong; Google was lead investor in a financing round that closed last year. Barefoot also has backing from Alibaba, Tencent and others.

The telco industry is big and therefore traditionally slow to move, but given AT&T’s work with Domain 2.0 and AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan carrying the flag, “you have to pinch yourself every now and again that AT&T is leading the charge in an amazing way,” he said. “It’s really impressive.”

Developments are looking positive for SDN. “I don’t think we’re talking about whether or not SDN and NFV dominates the telco industry anymore,” he said. “It’s only a question of how it will be rolled out” and when it actually becomes the majority of the network infrastructure.