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Big Switch Networks: SDN, network virtualization, an army of partners

Big Switch Networks has launched an OpenFlow controller, network virtualization platform and monitoring tool, and lined up hardware vendors.

Startup Big Switch Networks announced commercial availability of its software defined networking products this week, while also revealing an impressive list of partners that will boost its sales efforts.

Big Switch announced a software defined networking ecosystem that includes a commercial OpenFlow controller, a network virtualization platform and a monitoring application, but most importantly, provides an open architecture that will allow application developers and partners to create services that could forever change networking.

Along with the products, Big Switch announced partnerships with 27 vendors, ranging from traditional network hardware players like Juniper Networks, Arista, Brocade and HP, to hypervisor companies like Citrix and Microsoft. The partners will develop software defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization applications with Big Switch, and will coordinate direct sales efforts with the startup.

With Big Switch's new technology, enterprises can dip their toes into the SDN pond, either using software network overlays with their existing hardware, implementing OpenFlow-friendly physical components, or a combination of both. Big Switch also offers customers the opportunity to use SDN initially for network services, such as firewalling and load balancing, and adopt a full SDN architecture later.

"It's almost like the SDN market really started this week," said Nick Lippis a research analyst, SDN expert and founder of the Lippis Report. "Never do I remember a startup company coming out with 27 partners. That's huge. There is now a distribution channel for Big Switch Networks."

Gartner distinguished analyst Joe Skorupa said the lineup of heavy-weight network hardware vendors is indicative of what's to come for SDN and networking as a whole. "They have a large number of credible vendors who are stepping up and saying, 'It's a different world going forward, and we intend to play in it,'" he said.

Big Switch OpenFlow Controller: The heart of the matter

At the heart of Big Switch's release is the Big Network Controller, an open standard FloodLight platform.

Controllers are a key element of SDN and network programmability since they allow engineers to decouple the control plane from the physical network components, and then centralize that functionality to granularly manage underlying devices. Network engineers can control specific flows between devices, specifying, for example, which applications get priority on specific segments of the network. They can also use controllers to implement policy across an enormous network from one central console; one engineer can manage 1,000 switches instead of the 50 they can currently handle, Lippis explained.

The Big Switch controller can manage more than 1,000 switches and 250,000 new host connections per second, and it allows engineers to create a fabric among all of the underlying virtual and physical network devices.

"Our Big Network Controller [creates a] common network topology of all underlying devices," said Jason Matlof, Big Switch vice president of marketing. Customers can then choose which physical devices will participate in the SDN environment. They can choose to manage only firewalls or ADCs using the SDN, or they can run an entire overlay using hypervisor switches, he explained.

The emerging world of SDN applications

Applications that sit to the north of that controller can apply services or policy to the underlying network, and this is where Big Switch's ecosystem of partners will boost the startup.

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Companies can ultimately program networks to be automatically reactive to applications for a whole new kind of Quality of Service. They can program automated traffic prioritization for specific applications, spin up network segments for groups of virtual machines based on policy, enable networks that self-troubleshoot based on alerts, or provision virtual firewalls in reaction to specific kinds of incoming traffic.

These kinds of applications will flourish if Big Switch's partners agree upon a common set of so-called northbound application programming interfaces (APIs) for development. Currently OpenFlow is used for southbound communication, but the northbound language for application development is still in the works.

"If we see support around a set of common [northbound] APIs, it now becomes possible for six bright guys in a garage in San Jose, in Mumbai, in Boston, in a university in Indiana, to create an application that has a significant impact on the networking industry, and they didn't have to raise $100 million to do it," Skorupa said.

Network virtualization: The ultimate application?

Big Switch's first northbound application -- Big Virtual Switch -- is a network virtualization platform that automates provisioning of virtual network resources and can integrate into a cloud orchestration architecture, such as OpenStack.

Using Big Virtual Switch, engineers can spin up distinct virtual network tenants on demand to support flexible virtual workloads in a data center or cloud. Using the OpenStack Quantum API, Big Virtual Switch "inherits information" through the Quantum plug-in and then provisions network resources or creates network segments without having to do manual network configuration. "It's all done dynamically," Matlof said.

Engineers can form restrictions around specific virtual machines (VMs) or enable segments that allow workloads to talk to each other based upon definitions in the OpenStack orchestration platform, he explained.

Big Switch's network virtualization platform can work over network overlay software, but it can also provision network virtualization with an OpenFlow-based network.

Will network monitoring get Big Switch networks in the door?

The folks at Big Switch are the first to admit that SDN is not an easy story to explain to customers. But selling its SDN-based monitoring tool Big Tap may open up the conversation more easily.

With Big Tap, engineers can gain visibility through the SDN controller, eliminating the need to set up hundreds of costly physical taps throughout the network.

"With an SDN overlay on top of a physical [monitoring] network, you can move that tap anywhere you want. It's a very fluid and flexible implementation to get at network visualization at one-tenth the cost," Lippis said. While physical monitoring might cost up to $20,000 per Ethernet port, it can now be done for $100 per port using SDN, he said.

Big Tap offers savings, but it is also more palatable to enterprises that are reluctant to experiment with SDN. Enterprises are much more willing to tinker with the monitoring network than the production network.

"There is a sharp pain point, and this is a simple value proposition. It's an ultra low-risk way to start deploying SDN," Matlof said.

Once customers implement peripheral SDN projects like Big Tap, Big Switch will have a chance to prove the technology is manageable and works. The company makes enterprises more open to implementation of the technology in core parts of the network.

Where are Cisco and VMware in this SDN new-world order? In part two of this piece on the Big Switch Networks release, learn where the networking and virtualization incumbents fit in.

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