Big Switch CEO Pushes SDN Vendor's New Strategy
By the time Big Switch Networks rolled out its first software-defined networking products in November 2012, the company was among the better known startups looking to gain traction in a burgeoning part of the enterprise networking market.
In an SDN space that even now is still sorting itself out, the vendor was a vocal advocate for network overlays based on the OpenFlow protocol, where a virtual network is run on top of an underlying physical infrastructure and connected by virtual links. Big Switch's Open SDN suite of offerings was designed to work in a strategy that was built around a controller, applications and the network.
However, last year, the company began to switch gears, moving away from the overlay concept to embrace the idea of leveraging bare-metal switches to run both physical and virtual networks. The new initiative still uses what Big Switch launched in Nov. 2012, including the company's Big Tap network monitoring tool, and leverages the OpenStack cloud orchestration software, but the transition represents a significant shift for the company. The company this month released version 3.0 of Big Tap.
The idea is to create an SDN environment that is open, flexible, easy to manage and less costly than those from competitors.
In November 2013, Big Switch named Doug Murray CEO to oversee that transition. Murray, a former executive with Juniper Networks, replaced co-founder Guido Appenzeller, who remains with the company as its chief technology officer and as a member of the board.
Murray has spent the past three-plus months talking with customers and partners, and is convinced that the path Big Switch is on is the right one.
"You need a physical and a virtual strategy," Murray told eWEEK, pushing back at the overlay idea that is favored by the likes of VMware, with the technology it inherited when it bought startup Nicira in 2012 for $1.26 billion. "You have to have both."
Big Switch is developing the SDN tools that can run on bare metal switches from original design manufacturers (ODMs), giving businesses that ability to leverage these less complex and less expensive systems for their SDN infrastructures.
Murray noted that the idea of using bare metal switches with SDN software is not a concept unique to Big Switch.
"All the major Web companies like Facebook and Google have basically already been doing this," he said, adding that Big Switch's goal is to bring this strategy to enterprise data centers. "It's taking Google to the masses."
In addition, the wide adoption of Broadcom's Trident II network ASIC has brought greater standardization to the hardware side of the equation, something that further fuels the argument for the use of bare metal switches, he said.
SDNs and their close cousin network-functions virtualization (NFV) are designed to make networks more programmable, flexible, automated and cost-effective. The network intelligence is moved from hardware switches—which traditionally are configured manually, a process that can take weeks or months—and housed in software, enabling rapid programming of switches. Analysts are expecting rapid growth in the SDN market. Infonetics Research analysts say it will hit $3.1 billion by 2017, while Dell'Oro Group said it will grow sixfold over the next five years.
A survey by Quinstreet Enterprise—publisher of eWEEK—found that that SDN is getting a lot of attention from enterprises, but that it's still an emerging technology and right now has little penetration in the enterprise.
However, Murray expects that 2014 will be the year that the hype starts giving way to reality. Organizations are getting a better grasp on SDN and what it can do, and vendors are ramping up their portfolios.
"This will be the year of a lot of products," he said. "We have a large [number] of products coming out this year, and we're not alone."
Key among those products coming from Big Switch will be its Cloud Fabric offering, which will include software for managing cloud operations. Murray also said the company will bring out new applications to enhance what the network can do.
A challenge for Big Switch this year will be to define its strategy and products in the industry. The company includes major firms like Goldman Sachs and Fidelity Investments among its customers, and Murray said there are companies that already are testing Cloud Fabric in their environments. What Big Switch officials also will be pushing are use cases that can highlight the company's technologies, according to the CEO.
Openness will continue to be a key for Big Switch, he said. The company has joined the Open Networking Forum (ONF) and the Facebook-led Open Compute Project (OCP), and is a big supporter of OpenStack. The company this month donated code from its Open Network Linux networking distribution, Murray said.
"Everything we do is designed around openness," he said.
Big Switch made headlines last summer when it broke with the vendor-driven OpenDaylight Project, which earlier this month launched the initial software release of its Hydrogen SDN platform. Murray said that as a small company, Big Switch needs to keep its options open but also needs to be realistic about how many open groups it can join. While not necessarily against what OpenDaylight is doing, the CEO said he will wait to see how what the group is doing dovetails with his company's ambitions before making any decisions about it.