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OpenFlow is the primary southbound protocol the SDN control plane. OpenFlow operates at time scales close to the data network round trip time (RTT), usually milliseconds, and is primarily used to program flow tables that control packet forwarding using the match-action model, and is used as the primary southbound protocol for . ONOS's packet forwarding abstractions primarily use OpenFlow to program switch flow tables.

OpenFlow also provides some limited configuration capabilities (such as bringing a port up or down, or configuring meters), but many required configuration operations (such as telling a switch which controllers to connect to, enabling the OpenFlow agent on a switch, or enabling OpenFlow on specific ports) are explicitly out of scope for OpenFlow.