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Big Switch abandons OpenDaylight after controller spat with Cisco

Big Switch has left the OpenDaylight Project over the perceived influence of incumbent vendors like Cisco and IBM.

Software-defined networking startup Big Switch Networks dropped out of its leadership position in the OpenDaylight Project with concerns that incumbent vendors like Cisco are wielding too much power over how the vendor-led consortium will build an open source, SDN stack.

Big Switch and Cisco were at odds over whose technology would form the foundation of an OpenDaylight SDN controller. Ultimately, engineers involved in the project leaned toward combining elements of Cisco's and Big Switch's technology into a single SDN controller. Although OpenDaylight's listservs indicated some consensus around this idea, the players involved were sharply divided on how to proceed. Representatives from Cisco and IBM proposed bolting elements of Big Switch's controller onto Cisco's controller. Representatives from Big Switch, Intel, HP and other companies favored building a new controller that drew elements from both Cisco's and Big Switch's codebases. Others, such as Guru Parulkar, executive director of the Open Networking Research Center, also voiced support for the latter option. After weeks of debate, Big Switch's CEO Guido Apenzellar blogged about his company's decision to step down.

"If the community's intent is to create a vendor-neutral community, it shouldn't start with one vendor's code," said Jason Matlof, Big Switch's vice president of marketing. "We're interested in this if it's a merit-based, community project. I'll leave it to the industry to judge whether that's followed. There is no way we're going to invest years of resources merging backwards into a controller that is undeniably a year behind our own controller."

The OpenDaylight Project implied in a statement from an unnamed spokesperson that Big Switch is simply upset that the open source consortium isn't bowing to its own commercial interests.

"As much as Big Switch Networks would like to paint this as some sort of David [versus] Goliath struggle, the facts simply don't support it," the statement said. "It's more accurate to say this is open source [versus] the goals of a single, for-profit startup. In this case, the developer community combined technology from multiple sources (including [Big Switch]), which the company obviously didn't like. Open source is based on compromise and working together. Sometimes strong motivations and investor goals can get in the way of that."

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Big Switch was a founding "Platinum" member of OpenDaylight, which required a commitment of approximately $1 million and 10 full-time engineers to the project. In return for that commitment, Platinum members get a seat on the project's board of directors and the technical steering committee. Cisco, Juniper Networks, IBM, NEC, Red Hat, Ericsson, Brocade, Citrix and Microsoft remain Platinum members. Big Switch is downgrading its status to "Silver," which it describes as an observer role.

"It was always going to be tougher for [Big Switch] to work alongside traditional networking players," said Brad Casemore, research director at IDC. It would have been more surprising if "all these members were in harmonious agreement. I still look at that Platinum membership and see potential for further conflict."

Many non-Platinum vendors have contributed their own code to the project, Casemore said. Those companies are waiting to see whether their contributions are accepted.

"The whole idea of meritocracy will be tested," he said. Still, he is skeptical that anything will come of OpenDaylight.

"You have to wonder with the way it's coming together whether [OpenDaylight will produce] a platform that anyone will actually take to market," he added. "Despite all this handholding under the OpenDaylight banner, some think that these vendors are just going to pursue their own strategies anyway. The flip side of that is that it doesn't detract from any single vendor's strategy. It just creates confusion among customers."

Does the fight over an SDN controller even matter?

Given the modular nature of the SDN stack that OpenDaylight is trying to produce, some people might argue that it doesn't matter what form the SDN controller takes.

"The real value and money is going to be made in the infrastructure that supports [OpenDaylight] and the services customers are going to buy for their solutions. We don't want to be religious about one controller," said Rami Rahim, executive vice president and general manager of Juniper's Platform Systems Division, who described Big Switch's departure as an example of the growing pains that an open source project experiences in its early days.

Big Switch's Matlof disagreed with Rahim's assessment. "The hardware is important, the apps are important, but the controller is super-important. The most critical thing is moving toward standards for the abstractions between all those layers," he said. Cisco's controller creates an abstraction on top of the Openflow abstraction, "which is not the way to do OpenFlow. This was done so that another super-abstraction could support Cisco's proprietary protocols. It's a really awkward and inefficient way to implement OpenFlow because you don't have direct access to it."

Meanwhile, on the same day that Big Switch decided to pull back from the project, OpenDaylight announced five new Silver members: Cyan, Huawei, Inocybe Technologies, Plexxi and Radware.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director.

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