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ONOS: SDN gets real

2015.05.01 By Guru Parulkar


The future of telco is software-defined; it’s also open-source. Open Network Operating System (ONOS) is the first carrier-grade operating system that combines both. ONOS is the brainchild of ON.Lab, and its Executive Director, Guru Parulkar, recently sat down with Communicate to discuss the platform itself, the state of SDN in the industry, and the shifting role of telcos.

It’s no longer academic

Communicate: Tell us a bit about the background of ON.Lab and ONOS. 

Guru Parulkar: SDN started originally at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. We did a number of things with SDN, including building SDN controllers and OpenFlow-based switches. Three years ago, we started to see that SDN was taking off and the industry was becoming serious about SDN. So at that time, we realized that the industry would need open-source SDN platforms, the use of which can build real products and solutions. To accelerate SDN, we started Open Networking Lab (ON.Lab) as an independent, non-profit organization to create open-source SDN platforms and tools for the industry to use and build on.

As for ONOS, it is, in some way, our first significant open-source SDN platform. It is an open-source network operating system that is primarily designed for service provider networks. What that means is that ONOS is designed to be scalable, high-performance, highly available, and has the right kind of abstractions, so network DevOps personnel can write applications and services on top of ONOS very easily.

When we started ON.Lab, SDN was already starting to happen in data centers. So we decided to focus on the service provider networks as the next frontier for SDN. We realized that unless we build open source platforms and demonstrate use cases, service providers will not adopt SDN as quickly. That was the origin of ON.Lab and ONOS.

ONOS: A team effort

Communicate: Who are the major backers of ONOS?

Parulkar: The major backers include a number of leading service providers such as AT&T, NTT Communication, and SK Telecom. We have a commitment from China Unicom to join as well. In addition to the leading service providers, we have a number of vendors that are partners in backing ONOS, which include Huawei and companies like Ciena, Cisco, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Intel and NEC.

We are delighted to have all these partners working with us and supporting ONOS, especially the leading service providers, because they are the ones that show us which use cases matter and how they plan to deploy SDN and ONOS in their real networks. It is very important for us to have service providers supporting it as well, because at the end of the day, it is for their benefit that we are doing all this work on software-defined networking and use cases.

Communicate: How many engineers do you have working on ONOS?

Parulkar: Building a core platform like an SDN operating system requires a small group of experts that can work like a team. That is exactly what we have. We have a group of 20 people. Four are architects, who have experience both in the industry and delivering major products, as well as people who have a research background. Then we have a developer team and a QA team. Together, they have a very unique expertise in networking, distributor systems, and software systems for the development of advanced platforms. That is what is needed to create an SDN operating system of the type I mentioned before.

In addition to the ON.Lab team, we have engineers from our partners, like AT&T, Huawei, and others who are also part of the team. So the ON.Lab team forms the core; then we have engineers from our partners, and then there’s the larger developer community.

One fast Blackbird

Communicate: What’s the significance of the Blackbird release of ONOS?

Parulkar: In the Blackbird release, we experimentally demonstrated the key attributes of ONOS. As I mentioned, ONOS is designed to be scalable, high-performance and highly available. For example, we demonstrated that ONOS can sustain up to two million flow operations per second and performance scales with the number of ONOS instances or servers. We also demonstrated that ONOS can react to networking events in less than 100 milliseconds, where ONOS does most of its processing in less than 10 milliseconds. These are the important performance metrics that service providers care about; and these are the performance metrics  that an open source SDN control plane has demonstrated for the first time.

We hope going forward that the networking industry and the SDN industry will standardize these performance metrics and expect everyone to report or ask for them, whether you are a designer or the user of the SDN control plane. In software development, many organizations try to get the functionality right, and then worry about performance, scale and high availability. But architecture absolutely affects performance, scalability and availability, especially for an operating system. That is why we thought getting the architecture right is very important, because that is the only way you can get these performance and scalability numbers. We are very happy that our team got this right.

Communicate: Where does ONOS fit in this wide-open SDN and NFV environment?

Parulkar: ONOS is focusing primarily on two types of use cases or solution proofs-of-concept (POCs). One type has to do with the reduction of CAPEX and OPEX on the infrastructure side. For example, if you look at the backbone networks where service providers operate packet optical networks, they operate them independently. We are doing a use case to demonstrate that we can use a single SDN control plane to control packet optical networks. The second type of use case has to do with creating revenue-generating services that are enabled by something like NFV. We are focused on those cases as well to demonstrate how service providers can create new services very quickly on top of ONOS.

As I mentioned earlier, ONOS is the network operating system designed for service provider networks for scalability, high performance and high availability. So I think in that space, ONOS is unique, and we believe that is the only platform that is designed with these attributes.

What’s ahead?

Communicate: The industry has developed a lot of software. What do you see ahead in terms of commercial deployment?

Parulkar: Huawei is one of the vendors that has already announced a plan to build commercial products and commercial solutions based on ONOS. I know that there are other vendors planning to do it as well. But I would let them speak for themselves. Also I told you about some of the solution POCs that we are doing with AT&T, NTT Communications, and so on. You can imagine they will not be doing these solution POCs unless they have some serious plan of actual deployment and monetization.

Communicate: Telcos are worried about OTT competition. How can operators compete against or maybe align with OTTs?

Parulkar: There’s going to be a combination of competition and some cooperation. So in the case of service providers, they do have the benefits of central offices. They do come very close to the subscribers. In the central offices, if they deploy the right kind of computing, storage, and networking technology, then they are able to create some value-added services that maybe the OTT providers cannot offer. So they have some advantages and they can find a way to monetize it. At the same time, they can open up their infrastructure to OTT providers and, as a result, offer some interesting services and share revenue. So there may be opportunities for some innovative business models. I’m sure service providers are exploring those.