Daily Archives: April 9, 2012

Big Switch’s Open Invocation

In my last post, which focused on the nascent market and fluid ecosystem for software defined networking (SDN), I commented on the early jockeying for position in the wide-open controller race.

These still are early days for SDN, especially in the enterprise, where the technology’s footprint is negligible and where networking professionals are inclined to view it as a solution in search of a problem. As such, emergent vendors are trying to get a fast start, hoping that it might be extended into an insurmountable lead in an expanding market . That’s clearly the thinking behind the “Open SDN” strategy at Big Switch Networks.

Big Switch’s conundrum is easy to understand. It seemingly wants to become the Red Hat of SDN, but it first must create a meaningful market for its technology. If all goes according to plan, Big Switch would sell a “premium” version of its Floodlight controller, and it also could provide applications and services that run on it.

Help Wanted

But Big Switch can’t do it alone. It needs other vendors and the broader SDN community to buy into its vision and support the cause. For its controller to succeed, especially among enterprise networking professionals who already tend to be skeptical and even scornful of OpenFlow-based SDN, it will need to enlist third parties to develop and deliver compelling applications and services.

Hence, its “Open SDN” blueprint, which it has trademarked, and which rests on three pillars (networking companies love their pillars):

1) Open Standards, which connotes support for established networking-industry standards (there are plenty from which to choose) as well as for new ones, such as OpenFlow. The desired outcome is easier integration and interoperability between and among products in the SDN ecosystem.

2) Open APIs, which are intended to facilitate the creation of a vibrant ecosystem of infrastructure, network services, and orchestration applications.

3) Open Source, which offers the successfully community templates formed around Linux, MySQL, and Hadoop, and which is seen as an increasingly important factor as networking becomes more software oriented.

Open Invocation

Some people equate “open” with virtuous, as if a stark Manichean melodrama is unfolding between proprietary black-hat vendors and the good guys in white hats who fly the open-source flag. The truth is, each and every vendor is in business to make money. These are not non-profit organizations with altruistic mandates and motives. Vendors might differ in how they make their money, but not in their common desire to make it.

As a vendor of technology that is disruptive to the networking status quo, Big Switch has little to lose (and potentially much to gain) by playing the open-source card. If it can cultivate a community of application vendors around its Floodlight controller and leverage what it hopes will be a growing pool of OpenFlow-compatible switches, Big Switch will have a fighting chance of making the networking cut against established and neophyte players alike.

Enterprise Resistance

But time, as always, is a critical factor. Big Switch must establish and maintain market momentum, providing evidence of customer wins as early and as often as possible. It’s about inertia and perception, which tend to feed off one another. The company that makes perceptible progress will be well placed to make further perceptible progress, but the company that is seen to stumble shortly after leaving the gate might never recover.

Given the company’s enterprise, private-cloud orientation, Big Switch’s “Open SDN” gambit is probably the right call. It’s another matter entirely as to whether that strategy will be sufficient to overcome the SDN doubts of enterprise networking professionals.

Still Early Days in SDN Ecosystem

Jason Edelman has provided a helpful overview of the software-defined networking (SDN) ecosystem and the vendors currently active within it. Like any form chart, though, it’s a snapshot in time, and therefore subject to change, as I’m sure Edelman would concede.

Still, what Edelman has delivered is a useful contextual framework to understand where many vendors stand today, where “stealth” vendors might attempt to make their marks shortly, and where and how the overall space might evolve.

Edelman presents the somewhat-known entities — Nicira, Big Switch, NEC, and Embrane (L4-7) at the applications/services layer — and he also addresses  vendors providing controllers, where no one platform has gained an appreciable commercial advantage because the market remains nascent.  He also covers the “switch infrastructure” vendors, which include HP Networking, Netgear, IBM, Pica8, NEC, Arista, Juniper, and others. (In a value-based analysis of the SDN market, “switch infrastructure” is the least interesting layer, but it is essential to have an abundance of interoperable hardware on the market.)

Cards Still to be Played

The real battle, from which it might take considerable time for clears winners to emerge, will occur at the two upper layers, where controller vendors will be looking to win the patronage of purveyors of applications and services. At the moment, the picture is fuzzy. It remains possible that an eventual winner of the inevitable controller-market shakeout has yet to enter the frame.

In that regard, look for established networking players and new entrants to make some noise in the year ahead. Edelman has listed many of them, and I’ve heard that a few more are lurking in the shadows. Names that  are likely to be in the news soon include Plexxi, LineRate Systems (another L4-7 player, it seems), and Ericsson (with its OpenFlow/MPLS effort).

These are, as the saying goes, early days.