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Big Switch shifts SDN strategy to bare-metal switches and software

Big Switch Networks refocuses its SDN strategy on bare-metal switches and software, moving away from overlays and OEM switches.

Big Switch Networks, one of the first SDN startups, is changing its strategy after realizing mainstream enterprises are put off by the complexity of working with multiple vendors and technologies to assemble a software-defined network.

Big Switch will move away from virtual overlays and stop waiting for OEM switch vendors to deliver full OpenFlow support. Instead, it will bet big on bare-metal switches.

Big Switch's original strategy was to capitalize on the application layer of the three-tier SDN architectural model -- data forwarding plane, control plane and applications. Now it's going to break SDN into two more basic building blocks -- hardware and software -- according to Kyle Forster, president and co-founder of Mountain View, Calif.-based Big Switch.

On the hardware side, Big Switch will guide customers through the acquisition of so-called bare-metal switches from original device manufacturers (ODMs) that run Big Switch's open source Switch Light network software. These bare-metal switches can PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) directly via Big Switch's controller and run OpenFlow.

On the software side, Big Switch will sell packages that include the company's SDN controller and its SDN applications. In practice, this means Big Switch is walking away from building virtual network overlays on legacy infrastructure, a strategy many vendors have been pursuing and that gained steam by the VMware-Nicira acquisition and its launch of NSX.

"The words that came up [in customer conversations] were 'erector set,'" Forster said in reference to the overlay strategy. While early SDN adopters had the resources to assemble their own SDN architecture, mainstream enterprises were pushing back. They needed something that was easier to acquire and manage. It doesn't hurt that bare-metal switches, also known as white box switches, are much cheaper than OEM switches.

"Customers started telling us, 'With you guys we can build a 10 Gb SDN network and roll it out at the same price per port as a gigabit [OEM] network," he said.

Big Switch network monitoring app: A gateway drug

Last month Big Switch quietly shifted from beta to general availability with its Big Tap monitoring network, which the company sees as an entry point for its new two-tiered approach. Customers can use bare-metal switches and Big Switch software to build a monitoring fabric that is more affordable than specialized monitoring infrastructure from companies like Gigamon and Net Optics.

Big Tap deployments are appealing to early adopters because the infrastructure is not on the production network, giving customers a chance to try out bare-metal switches in a low to moderate risk environment.

"Every customer we talk to who is using [bare-metal switching] for monitoring considers it an entry-level solution," Forster said. They try the bare-metal ODM switches in the monitoring network, and if they are happy with the experience they explore ways to add them to production networks, he said.

Big Switch's next move will focus on what it has dubbed "cloud fabrics" or "P+V" (physical plus virtual). The company will try to sell software built on top of bare-metal switches to companies that are looking to build out new capacity in existing data centers for private cloud.

This strategy contrasts with layering a virtual overlay on top of the legacy network or ripping out legacy switching for new OpenFlow switches.

"I think they're making an interesting choice [by trying to] ride what they see as a big opportunity with bare-metal switches," said Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "I think they might be underestimating the reach and applicability of overlays, but there is a market where the overlay will not be the right fit."

More on the evolution of Big Switch

Big Switch: Network virtualization and an army of partners

Understanding Big Switch's SDN architecture

Big Switch abandons OpenDaylight after Cisco spat

Big Switch releases open source OpenFlow switch

Although Big Switch is seeing positive results with early bare-metal switch SDNs, the approach remains challenging since the supply chain and sales channel for ODM switches is still immature, Casemore said.

To address that issue, Big Switch has been pouring resources into helping ODM partners get the bare-metal switch market up and running, Forster said. He added that the company is also rapidly expanding frontline support for customers using these switches.

"We'll wind up doing the vast majority of support [for bare-metal switches]," Forster said. "I expect it will evolve very similarly to the server market, where your software vendor takes the vast majority of support calls. The only way to start a competitive networking company, especially in the data center, is to have concierge-style support. You are the first one in [and] the last one out of a support call, whether the problem is your equipment or not."

Beyond bare-metal switches, Big Switch partners in network services

Big Switch will also focus on building out a partner ecosystem based on its new strategy, with an emphasis of working with Layer 4-7 vendors in order to stitch network services and security into the company's SDN architecture, Forster said. The company is building partnerships with network management and monitoring vendors that customers use with the Big Tap product.

So far Big Switch hasn't been successful in maintaining a partner ecosystem. Some of the 27 partners that Big Switch went to market with late last year have dropped out, including Juniper Networks, Hewlett Packard and Arista Networks, all of whom aligned with VMware NSX last month.

Big Switch must deepen its relationships with Layer 4-7 vendors and orchestration software vendors, Casemore said. Big Switch has several vendors in those categories, including Mirantis, Canonical, F5 Networks, A10 Networks, Citrix, Fortinet and Palo Alto Networks.

"The big thing now is they've got to ensure that the ecosystem of partners who are important to their success are on board with [this new strategy]," Casemore said. "We know some vendors have moved in their own direction. They need to identify the ones who still have potential common cause and solidify those. They need to come out with announcements that describe how they are working with those partners to win new business."

Rumors of a possible acquisition of Big Switch by Cisco Systems circulated during VMworld last month. Forster said those rumors are nothing but FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Rumors of Big Switch's demise are also unfounded. "We just had our best economic quarter to date," he said.

Cisco was never a probable buyer for Big Switch, but other companies who do have holes in their SDN strategies could be interested, Casemore said. This new shift in strategy could be partially aimed at drawing more interest from those suitors.

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talk is cheap!