New vendors continue to unveil products aimed at making networks better fit into an increasingly digital world that is more mobile and more cloud-centric.
Earlier this month, 128 Technology came out of stealth mode with its Secure Vector Routing technology, a session-based networking solution that company officials said is a fundamentally new approach to routing that will reduce the complexity and improve the performance of networks.
Last week, two other new vendors—Apstra and SnapRoute—unveiled their own technologies that they said will make networks easier to program and configure, more dynamic and responsive to changing demands in the data center, and more affordable. They will improve the lives of network engineers, many of whom still have to go from one piece of networking gear to another to manage their infrastructures.
Another message from these vendors is that their offerings move the market beyond software-defined networking (SDN), which with network-functions virtualization (NFV) have roiled with networking space with promises of creating more programmable, agile and scalable networks. SDN has yet to follow through on those promises, according to officials with both Apstra and SnapRoute.
“Network Engineers are still managing their networks manually box by box; they are unable to use the hardware of their choosing; and they still lack the tools to prevent or debug outages effectively,” Mansour Karam, founder and CEO of Apstra, wrote in a post on the company blog, noting that the results are network administrators under pressure and CIOs without networks to meet business needs. “With SDN came a promise that all those problems would be fixed, yet these early approaches either argued that the physical network ‘didn’t matter’ or that the protocols network engineers have used for the past 20+ years were the problem and needed to be replaced by some new magical protocol. Practice demonstrated that, despite all the hype, none of these approaches panned out and the network engineers were left holding the bag.”
In a post on his own company’s site, SnapRoute founder and CEO Jason Forrester wrote that few companies are actually changing how they build their networks despite “an explosion of innovation in data center networking in recent years including SDN software controllers, white-box switches, tools for melding corporate-owned networks with public cloud services from Amazon and others.”
Apstra officials rolled out the Apstra Operating System (AOS), which they said brings a different view of networks. In recent years, businesses increasingly have been demanding that both their physical and virtual network resources from vendors be programmable through published APIs, particularly as their network infrastructures have become more distributed and more multivendor. However, such moves have made network engineers’ jobs more complex, forcing them to become expert in software programming and in the various differences between different vendors’ APIs, Karam wrote.
“They should not have to build automation systems using scripting tools that were designed for server automation,” he wrote. “The network is a distributed system, and pushing different configurations to hundreds if not thousands of devices, each with a different role in the network, without any feedback can lead to serious errors.”
The company’s AOS is designed to address these challenges. The software sits on every network device and runs the network as a system rather than a collection of individual boxes, taking a distributed approach to the infrastructure. Network engineers then are able to communicate what services they require from the network—which officials call the “intent”—and AOS ensures those intents are met. Users can track network configuration and performance from a single site, and maintenance is driven by intent-based specifications.
“Network Engineers must maintain choice and control of the network equipment suppliers,” Karam wrote. “They cannot afford to lock in their data center operational model based on the hardware vendor they happen to have deployed in their networks. Also, they need to stick to a horizontally layered architecture as much as possible—leveraging the protocols that served the industry well for the past 20 years is essential.”
Startups Apstra, SnapRoute Look to Ease Network Challenges
Apstra—whose investors include Arista Networks founder David Cheriton, who also invested in Google and VMware—put AOS into field trials in August 2015. The operating system will be generally available this summer.
For its part, SnapRoute was founded by ex-Apple employees who spent several years working on an internal project as part of the device maker’s 2011 data center expansion, including the development of a provisioning tool for upgrading the software on thousands of switches without having to take the network down. Forrester wrote that despite that trend toward open-source software, end users are still overly dependent on vendor-supplied software to run and monitor their networking systems. Any new features need to come from the OEMs, which can take months before upgrading the software.
When security issues crop up, “you can make the necessary angry phone calls and pray the fix arrives quickly,” Forrester wrote. “Hopefully it does before you are fired for a revenue-sucking, brand-killing network outage.”
What they need is true open-source software for networks, similar to what Linux did for servers, many of which now run open-source databases. SnapRoute has developed FlexSwitch, open-source software that officials said businesses can use to build open network environments. The software will be used as an option for the OpenSwitch operating system, and SnapRoute also is contributing the FlexSwitch software to the Facebook-led Open Compute Project (OCP) so it can be used in white-box gear. Both moves will help the company build an ecosystem around its software, he wrote.
Forrester noted that SnapRoute isn’t the first company to push open-source software on network devices. Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) now have switches that can run third-party network software from the likes of Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, Midokura and Pica8.