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IBM unfurls SDN network manager

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First virtualization chewed up processors and regurgitated them as a pile of fungible compute resources, then it started gobbling storage, and now it's turned its hungry eye to networks, and IBM wants to help VMware, OpenStack, and others, do the chewing.

IBM gave details on Tuesday of its Software Defined Networking for Virtual Environments management tool, which lets administrators automate and manage virtualized networks.

The tool has been in development at IBM since 2009, when its researchers started tinkering with the various then-young attempts by academics to make it easier to control networks and get rid of a dependence on proprietary hardware.

The SDN VE software makes it easy to provision VMware-virtualised networks, reducing deployment times from "days to hours", the company said. It dovetails into IBM's other SDN efforts – OpenFlow-enabled switches, and a Programmable Network Controller (PNC) – to give the company one of the fuller enterprise SDN packages in the market.

The technology is a network overlay based on IBM's Distributed Overlay Virtual Ethernet (DOVE) architecture. Its main components are a virtual switch, a connectivity server, a management console, and a gateway.

The virtual switch is IBM's own design. It provides layer 2 and layer 3 network virtualization via a UDP overlay. The switch, along with the rest of the overlay, is compatible with the 'Quantum' networking API used by open source cloud control freak OpenStack, which itself is based on technology developed by VMware-owned Nicira.

Though the technology at the moment is built for VMware's hypervisor, the company is also implementing KVM support and plans to demonstrate this in May, CTO for IBM's System Networking division, Renato Recio, told El Reg.

IBM VE software is designed to do three major things, he said. One is to "provide the control for the underlying overlay and physical fabric", two is to "provide APIs that enable the middleware like the common cloudstack that's OpenStack-based to control the network", and the third differentiator is to host the controller cluster.

What sets it apart from VMware is its eschewing of multicast, a networking technique that can have problems at large scales, he said.

It does this by using a directory lookup-based mechanism that eliminates the need to mandate any capabilities in underlying infrastructure. This puts it a cut above similar management systems touted by networking experts like Cisco, Juniper and (post-Nicira buy) VMware.

The directory service works in an analogous way to DNS, so when server a wants to communicate with server b it uses a directory to get the mapping of either the server hosting the destination or, if the system is out of the DOVE network, the gateway used to reach the destination.

"It is also tied closely to the application deployment model used in most data centers, enabling the creation, rapid deployment and modification of composite multi-tier applications. It does this by enabling groups of Virtual Machines (e.g. Web servers, App servers, Database cluster) to be connected through virtual network appliances (e.g. Firewall, IPS, ADC, ...), under programmatic control," he told us via email.

Network virtualization is combining with cloud computing to change the way businesses structure their IT systems, and SDN looks to be another wedge splitting software from hardware. ®

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