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Pica8 claims to be first vendor to support OpenFlow 1.4

Pica8 claims to be the first vendor to support the new OpenFlow SDN protocol, OpenFlow 1.4. What value does it bring to networks?

Pica8 updated its bare-metal switch software to support OpenFlow 1.4, claiming to be the first company to support the newest version of the SDN protocol on its products.

"Most switch vendors are at OpenFlow 1.0, and a few are claiming to support pieces of OpenFlow 1.3," said Steve Garrison, vice president of marketing for Pica8. "We think we are about a year ahead of the rest of the networking community."

Pica8 has updated its PicOS operating system to support OpenFlow 1.4, which the Open Networking Foundation standardized late last year. Pica8 packages the software with white box switches and a version of the open source Ryu controller, which also supports OpenFlow 1.4.

OpenFlow 1.4 includes several new features that improve the resiliency and scalability of an OpenFlow network. A new bundling feature allows OpenFlow controllers to make modification requests to multiple OpenFlow switches through a single message. By bundling these modification requests, a controller can make changes to multiple switches simultaneously. The changes go into effect only if they succeed on every switch in the network, which prevents switches without the proper flow table modifications from disrupting the rest of the network.

"This allows you to grab operations that are meaningful to specific applications and make sure its message goes out not to one switch, but to all switches. If all top-of-rack switches need to know one command set and each spine switch needs to know another command set, you can bundle the flows that have meaning for either specific location or specific applications," Garrison said.

OpenFlow 1.4 allows multiple controllers to monitor and control the same switch, a key functionality for running controllers in a resilient active-active mode.

The enhanced protocol also includes an eviction/vacancy feature that helps optimize the use of flow tables on switches. When a switch's TCAM is running out of room for new flows, it can send an early warning to a controller. And when it does get full, rather than rejecting new flows, the switch can drop low-priority flows to make room.

Eviction/vacancy "is a big deal when you start getting really large flow table usage," said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst for New York-based 451 Research. "It gives you the ability to scale the underlying hardware and it allows the switch to play around with table sizes."

While Pica8 appears to be first to market with OpenFlow 1.4, it's unclear whether other vendors will rush to follow.

"OpenFlow 1.3 is the spec where most implementers have put a stake in the ground. [It] was the first big step from 1.0 for most vendors," Hanselman said. The OpenFlow specification has advanced more rapidly than most early adopters like, he said. "The question is when to invest in this technology and what will be your upgrade path when you do? Any time you have a fast-moving technology, there is reticence to adopt. The thing about OpenFlow is that it is backward-compatible. They're adding a lot of useful capabilities that have all sorts of scalability and resilience upgrades."

While OpenFlow 1.4 support does add robustness and resiliency to Pica8's OpenFlow products, SDN remains an immature and poorly understood technology. Simply supporting the latest protocol isn't enough for many potential adopters, said Brad Casemore, research director for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"I think [Pica8] should tie this back to customer requirements and needs to make it more real in a commercial sense," Casemore said. "[OpenFlow 1.4 support] is almost like a performance claim. 'I'm the first vendor to support 10 Gigabit Ethernet, or 100 Gigabit Ethernet.' That's OK. You're making a claim [of industry leadership], but it's usually short-lived. Others will get there."

Pica8 and any other vendors that add OpenFlow 1.4 support will need to explain to network engineers what an upgrade from 1.0 or 1.3 to OpenFlow 1.4 will mean to their networks, Casemore said. "That's an OpenFlow issue, not a Pica8 issue," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director or follow him on Twitter @ShamusTT

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