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.

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