I personally believe that Software Defined Networking is hands down the single biggest innovation in computer networking in the last 30 years. It's impact is being felt not just by telcos and enterprise networks but also in home networks where it's true potential can be realised.
It was mid 2013 when I first heard about Software Defined Networking (SDN) and to be honest at the start I didn't really see what the fuss was about. Yes, it was interesting in a techie sort of way but I didn’t really get it, that was until I realised one incredible thing. I could now write my own applications and have full control of EVERY SINGLE BYTE of data on a network! Not just access rules or port translations but the ability to view or modify each and every byte of data in a packet. Just image the possibilities - security screening, access control, bandwidth management, the list is endless. But even as powerful as this could be for corporate data centres and network providers, what interested me more was it’s potential for the home network. You could restrict or prioritise bandwidth for certain websites, give streaming video traffic priority over web browsing or parent devices more bandwidth your children’s devices. You could control access to not only individual websites or applications but the actual protocols or services themselves. This technology is a real game changer, the only problem was getting access to the technology to begin learning and experimenting with it.
At the time there were only two options available for anyone who wanted to experiment with SDN. The first option was a network simulator called “Mininet”, an amazing piece of software that allows you to simulate an entire Software Defined Network on your computer. A great first step but it is still only a simulator so I couldn’t use real data from my own physical devices. The second option was a hardware SDN switch, but the only ones available were designed for use in data centres. These things were huge, sounded like a Boeing 747 and cost thousands of dollars so not really an option. But I REALLY wanted to learn about this technology so there was only one option left, I did what most hardcore nerds do. I built my own SDN switch!
Using off-the-shelf parts like an Atmel processor and a Micrel Ethernet switch chip I designed and built a tiny 4 port SDN switch that used the OpenFlow protocol. About the size of a deck of playing cards and powered by USB it allowed me to connect my entire home network and a couple of client devices (PCs, game consoles, etc.) and I began writing SDN applications for my home. Now I could finally get to play with SDN on my home network. I even wrote a small application that would change the colour of the light bulb in my study in real time based on the traffic that was currently dominant on our home network - red for Youtube, blue for Facebook, etc. I now had everything I needed to explore this amazing technology.
But it wasn’t until to I began showing my little creation to some friends who said I should create a Kickstarter project that I realised that maybe other people could use what I had built. So that’s what I did, I called it the Zodiac FX (not sure why I called it that but it sounded cool) and put it up on Kickstarter. Four weeks and many sleepless nights later I had reached my funding goal and my company, Northbound Networks was born. Over the next 6 months I wrote a complete OpenFlow switch firmware from scratch and hand assembled over 500 devices on my dinning room table for the Kickstarter pledges. I managed to ship all of the initial Kickstarter rewards within a couple of weeks of the promised delivery date, which considering that most crowd funded projects are months or even years late I think is quite an achievement.
So that was a little over a year ago and since then we have helped thousands of people learn and experiment with OpenFlow and Software Defined Networking. And it’s not just hobbyists and students but companies and institutions from all around the world that are using the Zodiac FX to explore the possibilities of SDN. Dozens of universities are using the Zodiac FX in their classes to teach SDN, some of the largest and most respected technologies companies in the world are using it for training and research. Organisations that I never thought would ever be interested in my little SDN switch use them on a daily basis - universities, government agencies, think tanks, research facilities and so many more.
We still make them right here in Melbourne, Australia in our own purpose built factory (thankfully I don’t have to make them by hand anymore!). To say I’m proud of what we achieved so far would be an understatement, it is so rewarding to see so many people using the Zodiac FX and especially have them tell me all about the SDN applications they have created. Not to mention all the amazing feedback and messages of support I have received along the way. I guess at the end of the day the main reason that Northbound Networks exists is to provide tools to explore the amazing capabilities of SDN using real hardware that anyone can afford. I truly believe that everyone should have access to such an awesome technology like SDN and I’m extremely proud to be able to help them achieve that.
Paul ZannaFounder and CEO