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Who's up for yet another software-defined net protocol? Cisco wants to see some hands

Openly flexes OpFlex at IETF, Juniper et al not even looking

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Cisco has unveiled an openly defined protocol for controlling network hardware, but it lacks an essential ingredient: participation from other network hardware makers.

The new OpFlex protocol was announced by Cisco on Wednesday. It is designed to let admins transfer policy commands to any network hardware that supports OpFlex. A draft of the protocol has already been submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with the hopes of becoming a recognized standard.

It's based on Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), a software-defined networking toolkit for its proprietary hardware. Open-source software using OpFlex will be developed and promoted by OpenDayLight – a software-defined networking project that sparked controversy last year when it plumped for Cisco's proprietary tech as its main component, causing a walkout by pro-open-source startup Big Switch Networks.

Cisco says its new protocol can be used by any OpFlex-friendly layer-four through layer-seven network device along with hypervisor switches and physical switches.

"Any third-party is welcome to contribute to open-source efforts or participate in the IETF process," the company explained in a slide-deck presentation.

But the software-defined networking world already has protocols like OpenFlow, prompting us to ask Cisco why it felt the world needed another standard.

"We were designing a fundamentally different system using the concept of declarative control," explained Cisco director of product management Michael Cowen in a chat with El Reg.

Still confused? Cisco explained in a blog post: "This [declarative] model abstracts applications, operations and infrastructure providing simplification and agility," Cisco added in a blog post. By distributing complexity to the edges, it also increases better scalability, and allows for resiliency – i.e. the data forwarding can still continue to happen even if there is no controller."

Much of the inspiration for the approach seems to be the distributed network overlay used by ex-Amazon startup Midokura. Cowen confirmed Cisco had worked with the company, and was going to do some collaborative development in the future.

Other companies involved in OpFlex include Citrix, Microsoft, f5, IBM, Red Hat, Sourcefire, Canonical and embrane.

At launch neither Juniper nor Brocade nor Arista Networks are involved in the protocol, making Cisco's claims of openness seem rather fantastic.

"The initial set of partners we focused on were partners that have core integration to what we are doing for Cisco ACI," Cowen told us. "Obviously as we put more work into the open source and work with the IETF we expect other vendors to become interested in the approach we're taking. It's absolutely an open approach."

Cisco is trying to navigate a shift in the currents of the networking market that threaten its business model as companies move away from tightly integrated proprietary hardware and instead buy in gear from multiple providers. Companies ranging from Facebook to Cisco to Amazon to AT&T are all doing this.

The response by Cisco to this has been a series of releases that emphasize new degrees of openness in its technology while subtly preferring underlying Cisco hardware. The more things change the more they stay the same, and so on. ®

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