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By | Richard Chirgwin 28th April 2015 06:02

HP switch upgrade hopes to sneak SDN onto network, quietly

Vendor silicon's white-box fightback continues

Interop HP has used Interop as the venue for its latest switch launch, putting software-defined networking (SDN) alongside speeds and feeds in the marketing pitch.

The way HP sees it, mobility – not just the cellphone but also the proliferation of WiFi devices – is the big deal that demands SDN.

The old-world attitude to the network, that all you really need is the next big pipe so you can over-provision network capacity like mad, is no longer viable.

Mark Thompson, director global product management campus switching, told The Register that capacity, security, application awareness and user awareness all demand a change to the platforms behind the access point.

On security, for example, he said that the approach that “once you're in the building, you must be okay” is no longer viable. Mobile users access the network from outside; contractors access it from the inside, and wireless signals leak outside the walls.

“And none of them have devices that you can guarantee trustable”, he said, so the network has to be able to manage access not just to an application's login, but also the paths a user is allowed to use in the network.

On the capacity side, he said: “Latency-sensitive applications, voice and video applications, video infrastructure, remote desktop – those are all competing not just fort the total size of the pipe, but that precious first choice in terms of latency.

“Even if you overprovision the pipes, the applications have to talk to the network – either change the behaviour of the application, or to ask for access to a service,” he said.

The iron

The metal itself is straightforward: switch modules for the HP 5400 designed to stop the switch being the bottleneck when it backs an 802.11ac Wave 2 (and beyond, Thompson noted) access point.

SmartRate ports in the module auto-sense what the existing Cat 5e wiring is carrying, from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps, and naturally there's Power over Ethernet. The new modules also add wire-speed 40 Gbps uplinks over the existing 1 Gbps or 10 Gbps ports in use today.

SDN the HP WayTM

OK, you ask, but where's the SDN in all of this?

It's in the ASIC, for one thing, and here, HP is joining the growing list of iron vendors fighting back against the encroachments of merchant silicon.

The ASIC in question represents three years' work, Thompson told Vulture South, and is the sixth generation of HP switch silicon since it first entered that particular fray in 1998.

The chip has the capacity and programmability needed for SDN, Thompson said, claiming it offers: “about 24 times more policy flow management capacity than anything else in the market.”

There's also ten parallel advanced packet processors on-chip to support new capabilities as they arrive. “For example, chaining together application packet inspection, so that when the next requirement arises to inspect, change or update packets in the network, we don't have to throw away the switch”.

The chip has programmable OpenFlow processing pipelines, and Thompson said OpenDaylight support is also important to HP: “We're working on bringing that functionality into the OpenDaylight process,” he said.

“We've already submitted it to OpenDaylight, it's just a matter of getting it accepted and published”.

He added that the company has “engineers working on the OpenFlow definitions, so that OpenFlow will have methods for taking advantage of these capabilities”.

The SDN capabilities also underpin the HP Network Vizualiser SDN application the company announced, something designed to help sys admins troubleshoot and fix network problems quickly (or, as Thompson put it, to reduce the “mean time to innocence”).

For example, he said, sysadmins responding to a complaint about slow video would be stuck with working out what happened after the fact.

Identifying that flow within a network is difficult, he explained, even though clues exist: network security knows which access point the user is connected to, the SDN environment knows where that user's flows are going, “so with the help of the network and policies distributed to the points of the network, we can capture stats, capture the session, take it off to do that quick forensic”.

Instead of being stuck defending a “slow network”, the sys admin would get the chance to show that the problem was a non-responsive codec, for example.

HP's hoping that network management and administration will be a gateway drug to SDN. Without changing anything about the day-to-day operation of the network, Thompson claimed, customers can put the SDN controller in place to hunt out information about the network.

“The nice thing about SDN is that it's the safest deployment – if it fails, you're left where you were,” he noted. ®

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