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Dan Pitt
Dan Pitt

What’s Ahead For SDN In 2016

Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation, shares the ONF's predictions for how software-defined networking will evolve next year.

At the end of each year, the leadership of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) develops a list of our software-defined networking (SDN) predictions for the next 12 months. These predictions often play directly into our organization’s roadmap for the new year.

I shared our predictions for 2015 with Network Computing readers at the end of 2014, including our prediction that open source software would become the new norm for network standards. Based on the great progress made this year, including our contributions with the launch of and its projects, this prediction is bearing out.

We also suggested that in 2015 network operators would demand open SDN, not just vendor-supplied SDN, and new OpenFlow products would make it the default southbound choice. The conversation regarding open versus proprietary continues, but operators are increasingly becoming aware of the benefits of leveraging open SDN solutions for their organizations and deploying open SDN wherever possible. Also, a number of new OpenFlow products were launched this year, and the southbound protocol is increasing in use, often embedded.

Additionally, we predicted that skills training would emerge in 2015 as the biggest SDN growth area. Many vendor-specific training programs are available, and ONF launched the industry’s first vendor-neutral skills certification program. SDN skills training will grow significantly in availability and importance in the new year.

So here are our predictions for 2016:

2016 is the year of the northbound interface

A solid southbound foundation for SDN has been established over recent years, and now is the time for the northbound interface (NBI) to shine. NBIs are essential for programming the network and application portability, and are emerging widely in open-source efforts. In 2016, ONF predicts that we will see industry agreement on, investment in, and deployment of a small number of popular NBIs. They will apply to specific use cases (such as real-time media) or operating environments (particularly relative to OpenStack), and all will convey an application’s intent to an abstracted notion of the network.

Open source will be commercialized

2015 was a big year for open source in the SDN community. In 2016, we’ll see SDN-based enterprise production applications using the developments that began this year, including open source controllers such as the Open Network Operating System (ONOS), OpenDaylight, and Ryu; Linux networking projects like IO Visor; and the above-mentioned NBIs.

ONF embarked on our own open source initiatives this past year with the development of, an open source software community and code repository. In the past eight months, the community has completed and released three projects including: Atrium 2015/A, a software distribution; Aspen, a real-time NBI for multimedia traffic; and Boulder, an open source intent-based NBI. All told, there are over a dozen projects in the repository, generated by the community. We expect to see a variety of these frameworks embedded in commercially available, supported products.

Service provider adoption of SDN expands worldwide

We saw service provider adoption of SDN begin in earnest in 2015, especially in Asia (China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan). 2016 will bring about continued and expanded adoption globally because of competitive pressures and now-demonstrated advantages with OpenFlow-enabling carrier SDN, beginning with optical transport and packet-optical integration, then extending up to NFV (given its high traction) and into management as the OSS is finally disaggregated.

The combination of SDN and network functions virtualization becomes widespread

NFV is a great way to get your feet wet with the flexibility of network virtualization, and carrier deployments of NFV ramped up in 2015. However, the most important of them require SDN underneath. It’s great to virtualize a computing function and house it in a commodity server in a data center. But to have it effect behavioral changes in the network requires SDN, which is based on exactly this model of separated forwarding and control. Consider load balancing, ACLs, and even WAN optimization; SDN supports these virtual network functions now.

Moreover, using SDN for service function chaining in the control plane -- perhaps the hottest demand among NFV users -- extends virtualization into the hypervisor and server itself. Thus the full benefits of aligning networking control and forwarding are best achieved with a foundation of SDN, and that requires more than just trading proprietary servers for commodity ones. In 2016, the combination of SDN and NFV will become commonplace in both carrier networks and enterprise clouds.

SDN and NFV help drive 5G

SDN and NFV will play a major role in the progress of 5G leading up to its availability beginning in 2017. In 2016, we believe that the role of SDN in 5G will become clear and may well be a thread that ties the multiplicity of meanings of 5G together.

In 2016 SDN becomes a question of “How?” not of “What?”, “If?”, or “When?” What do you foresee happening in the SDN industry in the new year? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Dan Pitt is Executive Director of the Open Networking Foundation, joining on its public launch in March 2011. Dan spent twenty years developing networking architecture, technology, standards, and products at IBM Networking Systems in North Carolina, IBM ... View Full Bio
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