The history of network transformation at Layer123: the early days

The Layer123 World Congress - under various aliases – has now been around for a full decade. As we all know, internet years are more like dog years than anything else – so these 10 years have seen some scarcely believable changes in how networks operate and the services they allow the industry to provide, with the more or less successful Covid response a glowing testament to the work put in and the progress made in building a more flexible, more customisable, and better manageable telecoms infrastructure.

Network technology events tend to look forwards – but this time we want to look back. As our event’s anniversary approaches, we’re taking a look at editions from the past – who met there, what they agreed, and how all the participants have contributed to driving the improvements in networking we’re seen over the past decade. We’re starting right back at the beginning with a look at the 2012 and 2013 events in Darmstadt and Bad Homburg respectively – and we’ll be following up with personal reflections from those who have been there right from the very beginning.

Do you have any reflections on early Layer123 events you’d like to share? We will run a series of look-backs within The Network and on the Layer123 site, so please get in touch if you’d like to get involved, we will be delighted to hear from you.

2012: Coming together

“All of a sudden, networking got really hot”. These are the words of industry veteran Roy Chua at the 2019 SDN NFV World Congress in his examination of the past and future of SDN and NFV. Although that description definitely still applies, he was talking about right at the beginning, or to be more precise the Open Networking Summit in October 2011. This event was where the conversations around SDN and OpenFlow really came out into the open – with the first OpenFlow protocol released in February of that year, universities and commercial labs were already starting to develop switches and solutions to test the water. This also helped to translate the work of the Clean Slate Program, which had the gargantuan aim of ‘overhauling the internet’, into real service improvements.

At this time SDN was gathering steam, but it took another year to bring the idea of NFV into play – and it was the launch of the first ever SDN NFV World Congress in 2012 that helped do it. Held in the German city of Darmstadt, the event brought a large number of carriers together to get on the same page about where network transformation was going – and 13 of them took the chance to launch the first introductory white paper on network function virtualisation. This became the very first ETSI NFV industry specification group, marking he venerable telecoms association’s first entry into the new world of network virtualisation.

But at the same time not everybody was singing from the same sheet. As early as 2013 factions were forming about the new way of operating – what will SDN and NFV actually bring? Are they interdependent? Are they just hype? These questions would remain ever-present in the networking conversation for a decade.

2013: From theory to practice

With working groups established, papers published and excitement building, the second Layer123 congress in 2013, this time in Bad Homburg, marked the point at which SDN moved from a theoretical ideal to something with real commercial potential.  “In general, the 2013 event marked the emergence of the congress as a must-attend for all the top reporters and analysts,” recallsDan Pitt, an ever-present in the network transformation world and a longtime collaborator with the Layer123 events. “It also marked the birth of the commercial promotion of SDN. Timed to attract the attention of travelers to the congress, NTT Communications placed full-page advertisements in the inflight magazines of major airlines promoting their new enterprise cloud service featuring ‘Software Defined Networking’.”

As NTT’s big splash showed, at this time SDN was almost seen as an advertising term rather than a functional technology. This ‘multiples talk’ – the triple- and quadruple-digit returns that operators embracing transformation could expect – shadowed the sector for many years afterwards, and analysts were finally noting as late as the Layer123 World Congress in 2020 that expectations were starting to calm down to low double-digit incremental gains rather than stratospheric transformations. 

That said, 2013 saw several vital, concrete steps towards creating an industry-wide push for a better network. The ONF took the opportunity to announce the establishment of the Northbound Interfaces Working Group (which initiated work, still ongoing in many places in the industry, on Intent-Based Networking) and then awarded the first product certification for OpenFlow (to NEC) under the ONF conformance testing program. The ONF went on to issue certifications for dozens of products from many manufacturers, including a very large contingent from China.

The news of an event bringing the industry together to one place to discuss the progress of open networking in these specific terms was a big step forwards, following on from the 13-carrier announcement of the previous year. The 2013 event also saw a press meeting – somewhere between a briefing and a conference – on why the world’s leading companies were doing what they were doing and pushing for SDN in the sector.

Not only that, 2013 marked the time when other associations and organisations besides ONF and ETSI came together to contribute to the transformation. The Linux Foundation joined the open networking ranks at this event as well, pushing the new OpenDaylight project hard at the event to recruit new participants to the project.

This is just the general introduction – we’ll be returning to the early days with a series of personal reflections from Layer123 stalwarts. Stay tuned for these!