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Pica8 offers SDN reference architecture for cloud providers

Pica8 introduces a software-defined networking reference architecture for use with low-cost ODM switch hardware.

Pica8, a software vendor that specializes in "hardware-independent" software-defined networking, released a network reference architecture aimed at spurring SDN adoption among cloud service providers.

Pica8's software-defined network (SDN) package is built around its PicOS switch software, which the company typically packages with low-cost, top-of-rack switch hardware from original design manufacturers (ODM) in Taiwan. Pica8 has added new integration with Open Virtual Switch (OVS) into PicOS. The OVS functionality will now provide OpenFlow agent functionality in the company's switch software. The reference architecture also includes integration with the open source Ryu OpenFlow controller from NTT Laboratories, and hypervisor-based OVS instances for control at the virtual edge of the networks.

Pica8 wants to offer a "Red Hat" approach to integrating open source technology with its PicOS switch software that is easy for cloud providers to use, according to Steve Garrison, the company's vice president.

"You could probably cobble together these open source tools yourself, but if you have an integrator like Red Hat, saying this [solution] has been proven to be interoperable and high quality, you'll have a good experience. We're trying to do that for SDN, so we can get above the discussion of what protocols make sense and get into a discussion about what make sense for the business and how can you accelerate revenue growth," Garrison said.

Pica8 believes that focusing on software and relying on the ODMs to provide manufacturing and hardware scale will allow it to continue to innovate on the software side at a cost. "We think we're the first to show this level of integration end-to-end from the physical switch to the vSwitch to the open source [OpenFlow] controller," Garrison said.

The real value of this Pica8 reference architecture lies in the integration of the basic pieces of an SDN, said Eric Hanselman, research director at London-based 451 Research. "They're pulling together a version of Ryu to work with this, and they're offering a procurement path for hardware. Right now you can't just go out there and take a reference design for a generic OpenFlow switch [to an ODM]."

The Pica8 approach to SDN will appeal to large-scale service providers with extensive internal network engineering resources.

"Buying networking gear from a major manufacturer means you're buying a whole bunch of things beyond the vendor," Hanselman said. "You're buying overall lifecycle maintenance and the expectation the vendors have a set of people who've got a familiarity with the way those boxes were built and can offer field maintenance."

The Pica8 approach is for cost-focused organizations that have people in-house who can take on some of the lifecycle management tasks that "vendors have historically done on their own," he said. In other words: Google, Facebook or Yahoo. Pica8 claims Yahoo Japan and Chinese search engine Baidu as customers.

A reference architecture is useful, but the more important task for Pica8 will be getting its switch OS into the hands of more customers, and getting their ODM partners involved in a broader market, said Brad Casemore, research director for data center networks at IDC.

"I think they're also looking to provide more of a complete offering, at least for deployment purposes so people can get up and running, and do some experimentation and testing and work toward very broad deployments," Casemore said.

Steve Noble, a networking consultant and founder of testing startup RouterAnalysis Inc., said the Pica8 reference architecture has good documentation, but he thinks the overall solution is still very complex. Many service providers might have the resources to build SDN with ODM boxes, but not all.

"If Pica8 wants people to pick up the solution then it will need to have less moving parts, or a bootable CD where you can just bring this up and work with it," Noble said.

There is virtue in the ODM-based approach to SDN, especially in this era of experimentation, Hanselman said. "Right now you've got a number of different OpenFlow products out there and each has a certain amount of vendor-specific wrapping around it," he said. If an organization wants a hackable platform that they can experiment with, a generic hardware platform with a Pica8-style package is the way to go.

More SDN reference architectures are on the way from Pica8, Garrison said. Early next year it will announce one built around another SDN controller.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.

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