Like downtrodden workers forming a union to challenge the man, a group of network technology users dominated by bank IT executives is presenting their vendors today with a set of demands for open and software-defined networks.
They're the culmination of a two-day meeting in which bankers and others shared their stories of migrating to more open networks.
For decades, banks and other major users of bandwidth-hogging technology have been locked into proprietary network solutions.
Local area and wide area networks sometimes don't speak to each other. Users have to wait for their vendors to make changes and updates. Network technology has to be purchased to support peak activity, even if those peaks only represent 5% of actual use.
Open networking technology, sometimes referred to as software-defined networks, is an architecture that makes networks programmable using ordinary software on commodity servers with standard operating systems. They are more flexible, at least in theory, than traditional networks. Users can make their own updates without waiting for their vendor. They can bring in high-performance technology without having to change infrastructure in which they have already invested. Many in the industry are gravitating toward OpenFlow, an open communications interface for network components.
Why do bankers care so much about this? "At the very high level, it comes down to economics," says Nick Lippis, chairman and founder of the Open Networking User Group and a networking consultant. "There's been such a lack of choice in terms of how companies build their networks. Companies have paid a high economic price for that lack of choice, and now it's starting to impact application rollouts and their competitiveness as a business. That's where the last straw was. They couldn't deploy apps or leverage all their server resources because they were stuck on the wrong side of the network. That was a wake-up call."
Open networking could help banks lower operating and capital expenses by running certain components on inexpensive commodity servers and sharing resources among applications. Openness and visibility into an enterprise's entire network should provide efficiencies in data center management and thus lower costs.
"The numbers are always sketchy, but I've heard bankers say if we can get to a common fabric that supports networking, storage and an automation toolset, that could take 60% of cost out of data center operations," says Lippis. "Which is huge."
Until the vendors figure out how to charge differently.
"Yes. It's always like Jello," he says. "At least this time around, users are taking control of what they want."
Indeed, some banks are already using open networking. State Street uses an open network operating system from Vello Systems to run its data center. The New York Stock Exchange and Currenex use the same technology to manage workloads.
"With tighter budgets and greater demands, software-defined networking is very appealing," said a telecommunications manager at a large mutual fund company who attended the ONUG event and spoke off the record. He could show leadership within his company by bringing in network solutions that are more cost effective and meet users' needs better. He also noted the rather unusual phenomenon of big rival financial companies working together to push their vendors in this direction. "Networking technology is not a competitive differentiator," he noted.
Traditionally rival banks haven't collaborated on network standards, and that has provided an opportunity for the vendor community to divide and conquer, Lippis says. "Now they're able to talk to each other, as long as it doesn't breach intellectual property, and they can now start to push on a common platform for networking that solves some of the biggest problems they've been facing."
The set of requirements the Open Networking User Group is announcing today gives networking vendors a priority list for the top issues some of their largest customers would like addressed a blueprint of sorts for future products.
The first requirement is that vendors integrate layer 4-7 network services (communication services used whenever a message passes to or from a user) to eliminate appliances.
The second demand is that the network technology companies take an open approach to virtual networks and overlays.
The third requirement is that vendors use branch wide area software-defined networks to reduce appliance clutter and extract greater value from wide area network services.
Several network technology vendors, including Cisco, Juniper, and HP, are members of the Open Networking User Group. "They all realize they've been providing networking the same way for 25 years and that doesn't work any more," Lippis says. Market shares may or may not change. But these companies are listening to customers' demand for change and choice, he says. Intel sponsored the ONUG event - the chipmaker stands to gain much if commodity servers become incorporated more in networks.
The new, open model calls for a rethinking of network management and design. ONUG is providing training to teach network engineers how to apply open networking technologies in their companies.
The Open Networking User Group was formed as the result of a conversation Lippis had with Ernest Lefner, senior vice president and architecture and engineering executive at Bank of America, in 2012. "We decided we needed to establish a user group around open networking so that we can harness the engineering talent within the IT community and their huge budget prowess to drive open networking requirements the way that IT executives want it, not the way that vendors want to give it," Lippis says. The group's members collectively manage more than $10 billion worth of IT budget, he points out.
If JPMorgan Chase were pursuing this on its own without knowing what the other large banks were doing, that could be a source of risk, Lippis explains.
One company providing what it calls an open networking operating system is Vello Systems. The company has partnerships with colocation company Equinix and storage giant EMC, as well as Big Data software company Splunk. The company has embraced OpenFlow switches, says Karl May, president, who spoke to us at the ONUG event.
The software builds a model of all computing resources that are plugged into a network. It provides a toolset that lets users align their application resources with their infrastructure.
Using Vello's software, high-speed resources can be shifted to the apps that need them, according to May, and network administrators can avoid the cost of overprovisioning. A module called Farsight lets users read performance information in real time related to an app, a network, or a storage device and shift resources to those that require it. The technology can be set up to automatically remediate any place where an application is falling below a given response time. The software can work with an existing, non-open networking environment, May says.