Lessons learned from SDN experiments and deployments

The scientific literature is full of papers that propose a new technique that (sometimes only slightly) improves the state of the art and evaluate its performance (by means of mathematical models, simulations are rarely experiments with real systems). During the last years, Software Defined Networking has seen a growing interest in both the scientific community and among vendors. Initially proposed as Stanford University, Software Defined Networking, aims at changing how networks are managed and operated. Today’s networks are composed of off-the-shelf devices that support standardized protocols with proprietary software and hardware implementations. Networked devices implement the data plane to forwarding packet and the control plane to correctly compute their forwarding table. Both planes are today implemented directly on the devices.

Software Defined Networking proposes to completely change how networks are built and managed. Networked devices still implement the data plane in hardware, but this data plane, or more precisely the forwarding table that controls its operation, is exposed through a simple API to software defined by the network operator to manage the network. This software runs on a controller and controls the update of the forwarding tables and the creation/removal of flows through the network according to policies defined by the network operator. Many papers have already been written on Software Defined Networking and entire workshops are already dedicated to this field.

A recently published paper, Maturing of OpenFlow and software-defined networking through deployments, written by M. Kobayashi and his colleagues analyzes Software Defined Networking from a different angle. This paper does not present a new contribution. Instead, it takes on step back and discusses the lessons that the networking group at Stanford have learned from designing, using and experimenting with the first Software Defined Networks that are used by real users. The paper discusses many of the projects carried out at Stanford in different phases, from the small lab experiments to international wide-area networks and using SDN for production traffic. For each phase, and this is probably the most interesting part of the paper, the authors highlight several of the lessons that they have learned from these deployments. Several of these lessons are worth being highlighted :

  • the size of the forwarding table on Openflow switches matters
  • the embedded CPU on networking devices is a barreer to innovation
  • virtualization and slicing and important when deployments are considered
  • the interactions between Openflow and existing protocols such as STP can cause problems. Still, it is unlikely that existing control plane protocols will disappear soon.

This paper is a must-read for researchers working on Software Defined Networks because it provides informations that are rarely discussed in scientific papers. Furthermore, it shows that eating your own dog food, i.e. really implementing and using the solutions that we propose in out papers is useful and has value.


[1] Masayoshi Kobayashi, Srini Seetharaman, Guru Parulkar, Guido Appenzeller, Joseph Little, Johan van Reijendam, Paul Weissmann, Nick McKeown, Maturing of OpenFlow and software-defined networking through deployments, Computer Networks, Available online 18 November 2013, ISSN 1389-1286, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bjp.2013.10.011.