Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Meet Big Switch, the Company That Wants to Help You Rebuild Your Network

All year, we’ve been hearing a lot about Software Defined Networks. Or at least I have. For example, in February there was the launch of Nicira, a secretive start-up that aimed to do for networks what VMware and virtualization have done for servers. Just as it was getting out of the blocks, VMware swooped in with $1.26 billion and acquired it.

Since then, there have been other moves around virtual (software-defined) networks. Oracle nabbed Xsigo Systems, another virtual networking player. A start-up called Plumgrid landed $10.7 million in funding. Then, networking giant Cisco Systems — which notably reports quarterly earnings today — started insisting that, after a couple of decades of selling gear for networks that are fundamentally defined by their hardware, it has considerable expertise in software-defined networking, too. We’ll see.

Anyway, there’s now a new player to keep track of, and its name is Big Switch Networks. It comes out of stealth mode today, and it is also launching a general-release product with an army of partners and $37 million in combined funding from investors including Redpoint Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Index Ventures and Goldman Sachs.

Yesterday, I talked with CEO and founder Guido Appenzeller (that’s him in the photo above, at the left of president and co-founder Kyle Forster) about what Big Switch plans to do. Essentially, it is software-defined networking writ larger than other players have sought to do. Specifically, Appenzeller says, Nicira aims to bring make networks programmable in software, but really only the data center. It is what he calls a “narrow stovepipe approach” that doesn’t take into account the larger opportunity. “It’s a single application without any open architecture support for other vendors, and there’s no support for anything other than the virtual switch that they have built. They’ve done a good job with what they’ve built, but customers want a platform; they want an open architecture that supports multiple vendors and devices, and which supports the deployment of many applications.”

Appenzeller has a strong background in OpenFlow, an open standard that allows software to determine how data is handled on a network. He was on the team at Stanford University’s Clean Slate Lab, and he led the research team that developed the OpenFlow standard.

The basic idea behind SDN is that networking environments should be as programmable as other parts of the IT infrastructure. Networks have grown incredibly complex to manage and, more often than not, when more flexibility or capacity is needed, the answer is to buy more hardware. The more you can customize a network in software, the less hardware you have to buy. SDN is also a departure from the way networking gear has generally been run before: Up to now, they have not been open for programmers to tinker with.

Big Switch’s approach has a lot of industry support. Its numerous partners include some pretty big names: Juniper Networks, Citrix, F5, Dell, Microsoft and Palo Alto Networks are but a few. One key name is not among them: Cisco Systems.

While Cisco does support OpenFlow, it has been slow to get serious about it, Appenzeller says. “Cisco has been timid in the SDN space. It has announced OpenFlow support on some of its switches, but right now it doesn’t have the API support to configure existing functionality on the switch, not to create new applications that run on it.”

Yet Big Switch doesn’t see Cisco as a competitor: It doesn’t sell routers and switches. “We would wholeheartedly embrace Cisco if and when it supports a data-abstraction layer like OpenFlow, but right now it doesn’t,” says Big Switch marketing VP Jason Matlof.

To be sure, Cisco has been trying to get ahead of the marketplace chatter around SDN for awhile. For one thing, it poured $100 million into an SDN-focused start-up called Insieme Networks. But it has argued that OpenFlow is just one approach to SDN. It has offered its own API kit, called the Cisco One Platform Kit, to work with Cisco gear.

It’s too soon to tell if SDN technology represents a fundamental competitive threat to Cisco, which has for so long thrived by selling proprietary networking gear. In a research note to clients dated Nov. 9, analyst Paul Silverstein of UBS Credit Suisse called SDN technology a “long term competitive threat to Cisco in the data center switching market,” and noted that data center switching amounts to about 10 percent of Cisco’s sales. Silverstein also noted that a large number of companies had partnered with Big Switch. He went on to write that, in the eyes of some industry sources he consulted, Cisco’s SDN approach is looking “increasingly cogent.”

Brian Marshall, an analyst with ISI, said in a short note today that, while SDN is promising, the threat to Cisco and established players is still off on the horizon. “Big Switch and Nicira have emerged as the early leaders in SDN with commercially viable solutions. We believe SDN momentum is solid and will create a longer-term headwind to traditional networking vendors, but do not expect a significant impact to financial models over the next 12-18 months.”

Whatever threat it may or may not represent to established players like Cisco, it’s clear that Big Switch sees the network as having reached a point similar to where smartphones were in, say, early 2007, when the iPhone and Android burst onto the scene and made creating smartphone apps so easy. “The point is to make networking a peer of the open computing environment, just like computing, just like the mobile world,” Matlof said. “Look back five years at what you could and couldn’t do with a smartphone, and what you can do now.”

A similar transformation is coming to networks that will make them a lot more flexible and customizable, and will allow companies to build their own custom applications to manage their networks in ways not possible before. “Those companies that are committed to open architectures will be our partners,” Appenzeller says. “Those that aren’t, won’t.”

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