Depending on who you talk to, a software-defined network (SDN) either represents a way to eliminate the need for command line interfaces or a total reinvention of how networks actually operate.

Most of the conversation to date has focused on reducing the cost of networks by reducing network management costs. But there are those who argue SDNs are really about reducing the cost of networking, period.

Case in point is LINCX, which Infoblox, a provider of IP address management appliances, has thus far spent over $1 million to build. As an open source networking project, LINCX is designed to make use of commercial-grade hardware to provide the functions of a network switch.

Infoblox CTO Stu Bailey notes that the primary reason networking is both inflexible and expensive because of all the dedicated hardware that an organizations needs to acquire. By relying on commercial-grade systems based on, for example, processors from Intel or Brocade, Baily says there is a massive opportunity at hand to redesign how networks operate. To capitalize on that opportunity LINCX is an effort to move networking functions into the software layer versus the proprietary ASICs where most of them reside today.

Disrupting networking's business model

Currently consisting of about 34,000 lines of code, Bailey says LINCX was primarily built by six networking engineers. Instead of having to deploy switches and appliances that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bailey says the end goal is replace those devices with “white boxes” running multiple network functions that might cost as little as $300.

Obviously, LINCX is not the only open source effort to create an SDN platform. But Bailey says that LINCX makes use of the Erlang programming language to create a platform that is requires about one-fourth the code of, for example, the Open vSwitch project.

A free download

Available today as a free download at FlowForwarding.org, Bailey contends that it’s now only a matter of time before there will be no need for switches, routers, load balancers, and a host of other networking appliances.

It’s obviously way too early to say how this shift to SDNs will ultimately play out. It’s clear that many hardware functions are about to move into software at a fairly rapid rate. Whether that will be running on open source or commercial SDN platforms is anybody’s guess. But the one thing that is for certain is that the networks that managed service providers (MSPs) depend on to make a living today will never be the same again.

Mike Vizard is a veteran IT journalist, former Editor in Chief of CRN and InfoWorld, and an IT industry market expert who has chronicled the information technology revolution over many decades, from DEC to Google.