Intel Makes Push Into Competitive SDN Space

The chip maker unveils reference designs aimed at helping enterprises and service providers to run SDN and NFV environments atop Intel-based systems.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini, in a conference call April 16 with analysts and journalists to talk about the company’s first-quarter financial numbers, spoke about the efforts the giant chip maker has made during his eight-year tenure to expand the reach of its silicon technology.

Otelllini, due to retire next month after more than four decades at Intel, said the company continues to move beyond PCs and servers into such areas as microservers, mobile devices, storage products and embedded systems.

"We compete wherever there is computing," he said.

On April 17 at the Open Networking Summit, Intel executives laid out the company’s strategy around data center networking and the burgeoning trend of software-defined networking (SDN). They also showed that their efforts will expand beyond simply supplying the processors for networking hardware. The company unveiled reference architectures designed to help enterprises, cloud service providers and telecommunications companies more quickly create hardware and software for SDN and network-function virtualization (NFV), moves that could bring Intel into closer competition with the likes of networking giant Cisco Systems and chip maker Broadcom.

The moves are aimed at encouraging the development of open SDN and NFV technologies atop standard x86-based platforms, which could reduce the need for specialized networking silicon from Cisco and other networking vendors and help Intel mount a strong challenge to Broadcom.

"SDN and NFV are critical elements of Intel's vision to transform the expensive, complex networks of today to a virtualized, programmable, standards-based architecture running commercial off-the-shelf hardware," Rose Schooler, vice president of the Intel Architecture Group and general manager of Intel's Communications and Storage Infrastructure Group, said in a statement. "The reference designs announced today enable a new phase in the evolution of the network and represent Intel's commitment to driving an open environment that fosters business agility and smart economics."

In a presentation to journalists before the announcement, Schooler said that networking technology now tends to be proprietary, costly and relatively inflexible, difficult to deploy and with a limited ecosystem, complex and inefficient. SDN is designed to make networks more flexible, scalable and programmable by removing network intelligence from switches and routers and putting it into a software-based controller. NFV leverages virtualization technology to consolidate networking equipment onto industry-standard servers, storage and switches, according to Intel.

Joining open SDN and NFV standard with Intel hardware and software can enable enterprises and service providers to create networking environments that are more agile, flexible, dynamic and intelligent, company officials said.

Intel has bought a number of companies over the past couple of years to rapidly grow its networking capabilities, including Ethernet chip maker Fulcrum Systems in 2011. It also has made several moves in the SDN space this year, including investing $6.5 million in Big Switch Systems and becoming a founding member of the OpenDaylight Project, which aims to create a common, open SDN platform. The company also is working with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute’s NFV project.

Given that, it would make sense that Intel aimed to announce its reference architectures at the Open Networking Summit. Intel’s Open Network Platform Switch Reference Design uses Intel Core or Xeon processors, its Ethernet Switch 6700 series and Intel Communications Chipset 89xx series as a foundation. The reference design, which had been codenamed “Seacliff Trail,” includes Wind River Open Network Software, a switching software stack that leverages Wind River Linux and that supports such SDN standards as OpenFlow and Open vSwitch.

Intel’s Data Plan Development Kit (DPDK) Accelerated Open vSwitch is designed to improve small packet throughput and workload performance using standard Intel-based servers.

Another architecture, the Open Network Platform Server Reference Design, is based on Xeon chips, Intel’s 82599 Ethernet controller and the Communications Chipset 89xx series. The reference design enables enterprises and service providers to put virtual appliance workloads on standard Intel-based servers using SDN and NFV standards, and also includes the Wind River Open Networking Software, which also supports Intel’s DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch and the OpenStack cloud software.

The Open Network Platform Switch Reference Design is available now, while the DPDK Accelerated Open vSwitch will be released with the Open Network Platform Server Reference Design in the third quarter. That reference design is in development, with the first alpha series set to be available in the second half of this year.