A group of thought leaders from companies such as eBay, Microsoft, IBM, Thomson Reuters, Citi, Columbia Sportswear, SAP, Arista, and Google recently gathered for future:net, an invitation-only networking conference held during VMworld 2016 U.S.
They convened to discuss and explore the current infrastructure evolution in which new approaches to networking are emerging to enable more scalable, efficient, and manageable data centers. The assembled group of more than 150 experts convened for two days to discuss the future of networking, and several common themes emerged.
Network Management Needs to Improve
There was wide agreement on the ongoing need for more effective network monitoring and management. In today’s networks, it’s difficult for a network manager to tell exactly which switches and routers a data packet passes through as it moves through a network.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Nick McKeown, professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Barefoot Networks. Packet-level monitoring and management, he said, “should be a natural part of the way networks are built—and, in fact, we should scream bloody murder until it is the case. We should be able to inspect any packet at any point.”
Solutions to these problems are emerging, but no comprehensive solution has materialized. As network hardware grows in computational power, and software plays an ever increasing role, new technologies are increasingly feasible.
Networking Needs Better Abstractions
In computing, abstraction makes it possible to write software without having to understand a CPU’s machine language or the wiring of its circuits. Currently, there is no equivalent in networking. It’s impossible to control or modify a network without changing routers, switches, patch panels, and protocols.
As McKeown noted, “The people who run networks today have to keep a superhuman amount of ‘state’ in their heads, so [networks] are run by ‘masters of complexity.’”
Several speakers discussed the advantages that software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization could bring in creating higher levels of abstraction for networking. McKeown also discussed work on programming languages to enable better abstractions for a new generation of programmable networking hardware.
Networking Requires a Shift in Skill Set
Forward-looking companies are beginning to take advantage of new technologies such as network virtualization, SDN, and network functions virtualization (NFV) to make their networks more agile, secure, and efficient.
Despite the inherent advantages of these technologies, they also require new skills and new ways of thinking. Verizon’s Bryan Larish emphasized the need to “prepare the runway” to get people acclimated to the new, software-defined way of doing things. “That skill-set shift is not going to happen overnight—and I think that’s okay,” Larish said.
Network Security Is a Concern
Security is a significant, ongoing concern for IT staff. Network complexity and increasingly sophisticated attack vectors are exposing security vulnerabilities.
The scale of the security challenge was highlighted by Mark Bluhm, who runs global data centers for Thomson Reuters. Bluhm estimated that the IT team makes more than 12,000 changes to the company’s data center networks every month—and that 8,000 of those are related to fixing security issues.
“The idea that the enterprise can defend a boundary is nothing more than pure, stupid repetition of Troy,” said Simon Crosby, the co-founder and CTO of Bromium.
In the modern enterprise network, there is no effective perimeter. Network virtualization helps reduce the attack surface by finely dividing networks into micro-segments. Rather than trying to protect a nonexistent or undefined perimeter, network managers need to reduce the impact of a compromised end-system using techniques such as micro-segmentation.
In a session on container networking, representatives from eBay, Google, Docker, and Mesos discussed the networking and security challenges in the new containerized world. A common theme was the need for network virtualization technologies to work hand-in-hand with containers, which need similar networking and security capabilities to those delivered to VMs.
Open-Source Efforts Are Driving Considerable Innovation in Networking
Several attendees noted mixed success with open-source technologies but were optimistic about the potential of open-source software, including solutions such as OpenConfig, Open vSwitch (OVS), and Open Virtual Network (OVN). While OpenStack is currently being used in large data centers operated by eBay, SAP, and Verizon, nascent technologies hold the promise of wider enterprise adoption.
The Future of Networking
A consistent theme of the conference was the continued decoupling of networking capabilities from the underlying infrastructure. As end users are increasingly mobile and applications run on infrastructure that is not owned by the business, networking and security services will be delivered via software that isn’t tethered to a particular device or location. Martin Casado, Nicira co-founder and general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, described this as the “up and out” movement of networking: higher up the application stack, and out into new application domains.
While plenty of challenges were identified by the conference attendees, there was also a sense of optimism that modern networking technologies, such as virtualization, are starting to deliver the capabilities that the industry needs.
Visit the future:net website to view recordings of all the sessions.