The OpenFlow Revolution is a Big Switch

Co-founder of networking startup Big Switch Networks explains what his company is doing with software defined networking (SDN) and open source makes working their offering more interoperable and easy to integrate.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted May 21, 2012
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Software defined networking (SDN) is triggering a major change in the way network administrators think about their networks. With SDN, the data and control planes can be separated enabling more programmable and flexible networks. One of the primary technologies behind SDN is the open source OpenFlow protocol. While the protocol can be supported on multiple types of switches from vendors big and small, it also requires a controller to actually manage and direct OpenFlow. That's where startup Big Switch Networks comes into play.

Moving OpenFlow forward

Big Switch was founded by Guido Appenzeller and Kyle Forster, in an effort to help move OpenFlow forward. In an interview with Enterprise Networking Planet Forster detailed how far forward his company has moved the ball over the last year as SDN enters networking's lexicon.

Big Switch's core product is an OpenFlow controller that is based the open source Floodlight project. Although the commercial version is not yet generally available, in only five months of availability, Floodlight has been downloaded 4,500 times.

Last year, people thought SDN and OpenFlow were interesting. This year, people are asking when can they trial the software. The full Big Switch controller is currently in a public beta with general availability set for later this year. As Floodlight is licensed under the open source Apache 2.0 license, Big Switch will have a commercial model where they offer proprietary bits and management on top of the open source base.

"Floodlight is probably about 20 percent of our code -- it's a very useful and high performance 20 percent," Forster said. "But there are an awful lot of other pieces in the base controller and the applications on top that we think are really interesting,"

Three tiers to an SDN architectural strategy: the data plane tier, which includes physical switches and hypervisors; the controller tier, which is an software development kit (SDK); and then there are a series of applications that run on top.

While OpenFlow is a critical component of SDN architecture, it's not all that's needed when folks are scaling from 200 virtual machines (VMs) per rack to 2,000, for example.

"You need OpenFlow plus a few pieces," Forster said. "But it's not gargantuan amounts. It's 'How do we do OpenFlow overlay networks? How do we do OpenFlow hybrid and native networks? and What are some of the problems that follow along with those items?'"

OpenFlow, open source & Floodlight

Because OpenFlow and the Floodlight controller are open source, there is a degree of interoperability that would not have been possible otherwise, according to Forster. Prior to the open sourcing of Floodlight, Big Switch conducted an interoperability test and it took 600 emails to get everything together. Now that Floodlight is available as open source, anyone can freely download and test it on their own for interoperability, which removes barriers to adoption and entry.

"Because of open source, we just get a huge boom for free and if it works with open source than there is a 99.999 percent chance it works with our commercial controller as well," Forster said.

Competition for the OpenFlow market

Big Switch isn't the only vendor aiming for a piece of the OpenFlow pie. It's a market that IDC predicts will be worth $2 billion by 2016.

"The competition is the status quo, the competition is 'How can we cobble together networking technologies that are five, six or seven years old and get them to work for 2,000 virtual machines per rack?'" Forster said. "That's the competition."

OpenFlow started out as a research effort at Stanford that Forster's co-founder Guido Appenzeller helped lead. Since then, OpenFlow has moved out of the lab and is poised to reshape the networking landscape. It's a change that Forster did not predict when he first got started.

"I knew we always had a better mousetrap," Forster said. "I had no idea it would become as big as it has become."

A conversation with Big Switch co-founder Kyle Forster

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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