Open Networking Foundation wary of ‘big vendor’ influence on SDN

Pitt said networking has remained too proprietary for too long

Pitt said networking has remained too proprietary for too long

Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), has warned of the dangers of allowing the big networking vendors to have too much influence over the development of SDN, arguing they have a strong interest in maintaining the proprietary status quo.

In an exclusive interview with, Pitt recalled the non-profit ONF was born of frustration at the proprietary nature of the networking industry. “We came out of research that was done at Stanford University and UC Berkeley that was trying to figure out why networking equipment isn’t programmable,” he said.

The networking industry has been back in the mainframe days; you buy a piece of equipment from one company and its hardware, chips, operating system are all proprietary. The computing industry got over that a long time ago – basically when the PC came out – but the networking industry hasn’t.

“So out of frustration at not being able to programme the switches and with faculties wanting to experiment with protocols beyond IP, they decided to break open the switching equipment and have a central place that sees the whole network, figures out how the traffic should be routed and tells the switches what to do.”

Disruptive change, by definition, is bound to threaten a lot of incumbents and Pitt identifies this as a major reason why Networking stayed in the proprietary era for so long. “Originally we were a bunch of people that had been meeting on Tuesday afternoons to work out this OpenFlow protocol and we said we should make it an industrial strength standard,” said Pitt. “But if we give it to the IETF they’re dominated by a small number of very large switching and routing companies and they will kill it.”

“This is very disruptive to some of the traditional vendors that have liked to maintain a proprietary system and lock in their customers to end-to-end solutions you have to buy from them. Some have jumped on it, but some of the big guys have held back. They’ve opened their own interfaces but they still define the interface and can make it so you still need their equipment. We’re very much the advocates of open SDN, where you don’t have a single party or little cabal that owns and controls something to disadvantage their competitors.”

Ultimately it’s hard to argue against open standards as they increase the size of the industry for everyone. But equally it’s not necessarily in the short term interest of companies already in a strong position in a sector to encourage its evolution. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that the software genie is out of the bottle in the networking space and the signs are that it’s a positive trend for all concerned.