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Confessions of an Optics Hipster

By Casimer DeCusatis

Confessions of an Optics Hipster
A month after OFC, you’re thrilled to hear that the Networking Guru has agreed to your request for an interview on whether software defined networking (SDN) is over-hyped.  Some people are saying this new approach to network management and control has all been tried before, so SDN is nothing to get excited about.  You’ve seen the cost savings and rapid service deployments that early adopters have realized from their SDN deployments, so you’re interested in getting some perspective on this field.

Approaching the Guru’s office through a haze of incense and stepping through the hanging bead curtain, you catch site of the Guru sitting behind his desk.  As you enter, the Guru looks up and beings to speak…

What’s the big deal with all this buzz about SDN anyway ?  You can’t throw a rock without hitting a dozen blogs about reconfigurable, application aware optical networks these days.  Why, last month OFC 2014 had dozens of papers on SDN and cloud networking alone (http://www.ofcconference.org/home/about-ofc/search-results/?searchtext=SDN&searchmode=anyword ).  Everybody’s getting excited as if this was something brand new. 
You’re a bit surprised that it’s possible to actually see the URLs hanging in the air as the Guru speaks.  Before you can ask about this, however, the Guru sits back in the glow of his lava lamp and sighs. 
Man, I was doing optics before it was cool.  Back before SDN went mainstream, before the hype and before the spin doctors at Gartner Group called 2014 the year of cloud (http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2613015 ).    Back in the day, when 100 Megabits (yes, mega-bits, not bytes) was considered a blindingly fast network, I was plugging away on my analog oscilloscope and writing up my results on foils (you smile at his outdated reference to overhead slides http://www.businessweek.com/stories/1993-10-03/rethinking-ibm ).
Look, I’m talking vintage tech here, all right?  We were trying to program virtual servers and networks before anybody cared.  Back when we carried stacks of overhead transparencies to conferences.  We didn’t have Facebook, we had MySpace – and we were darn grateful to have that !  These kids today, thinking they’re the first people to virtualize anything…IBM practically invented virtual machines on the System 360 (http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/mainframe/mainframe_PR360.html ), and it worked great!  And we were tunneling packets through the network with label switching with MPLS back in the mid 90s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiprotocol_Label_Switching#History ).    
The Guru pauses again, to adjust his skinny jeans and take a long, slow drag off a can of Tab sitting on his desk…tapping a few keys on his laptop, he brings up some classic 80s rock in the background…sounds like Journey’s Wheel in the Sky  (https://www.google.com/search?q=Journey+wheel+in+the+sky&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a )  
You know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  All hardware commoditizes over time, so this isn’t the first time the large incumbents have been threatened by a new wave of technology. 
You remind the Guru that SDN does offer a few different things, such as open APIs for physical as well as virtual network provisioning.  Before SDN, each switch vendor had a proprietary control plane; now we at least have the potential to open these interfaces.  And later this year, when optical transport using SDN is supposed to be standardized, we’ll be able to provision metro optical networks in minutes, rather than weeks or months; this has even been demonstrated in labs and test beds during OFC.  SDN also holds the promise of OpenStack integration for cloud computing.  Besides, if all this has somehow been done before, didn’t you see the Guru himself hanging out at the OFC plenary session last month ?
Sure, I had a paper of my own at OFC about cloud networking, but I did it ironically, you know?  Like asking people to follow my good buddy @Dr_Casimer so they can “join the conversation” on network virtualization.  Nowadays, it’s all just marketing…anybody without the words cloud, abstraction, or virtualization in their PowerPoint slides is getting their PaaS kicked in the cloud market.
You wonder if the Guru is perhaps a bit out of touch.  All the major cloud providers and , telecom companies, showed up at OFC to discuss this technology, and there’s so much being invested in this area by traditional companies and startups.  It seems to you that people who try to dismiss SDN by saying  “it’s been done before” are missing the point – every technology builds on what came before, and SDN is just the latest effort to create open, agile data centers.  You start to mention all the practical implementations of SDN from the conference, and how SDN seems to be delivering real value to a lot of people, but you notice the Guru seems lost in thought again.  You decide it’s time to stop talking about SDN, and get to work with the people actually making it happen.    
What’s that grinding noise as you get up to leave ?  Just your chair sliding back across the floor ?  Maybe the sound of CEOs from companies who didn’t deploy SDN optical networks when they had the chance spinning in their graves ?  Or maybe just the sound of a Paradign shifting without a clutch (http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Paradigm ).  SDN seem to be here to stay, and you wonder what the next big thing in networking will be, 5 years from now…you’ll probably find out at next year’s OFC conference.  . 
Wheel in the sky keeps on turning’….

Posted: 24 April 2014 by Casimer DeCusatis | with 0 comments

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