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New ONF membership category opens door to startup SDN companies

The ONF cut membership fees for SDN startups incorporated within the past two years, allowing them to become more involved in the non-profit.

The Open Networking Foundation  announced a new category of membership for SDN startups that allows them to become more actively involved in the non-profit for a significantly lower membership fee than more established vendor members. The move could go a long way in widening participation in the organization, which is responsible for the standardization of the SDN protocol OpenFlow.

Startups incorporated within the last two years will pay $1,000 a year as opposed to the $30,000 a year paid by other members. Startups will have no difference in membership privileges.

"We started hearing from more startup companies. As networking moves from hardware to software, you can do startups with small investments … and there are meaningful ways for them to contribute," said Dan Pitt, executive director at the Open Networking Foundation (ONF).

Specifically, the ONF wanted to give startup companies a better opportunity to develop specifications and help with fundamental work within the non-profit. "It's helpful to get these innovative minds inside to build the specifications, architecture and interface considerations."

Thanks to its lower fees, the ONF has already secured membership from six startup SDN companies, including Criterion Networks, Corsa Technology, GuardiCore, Konodrac, Tallac Networks and Xinguard Inc. Additional startups are currently in the membership application phase and will become ONF members in the coming months.  Pitt said he doesn't have specific expectations as to what each startup will contribute to the ONF, but he did take the time to meet with each and determine how they can get the most for their membership.

"[I talked] with them to see where we need their expertise, where they can have influence, and how they can meet other partners in their ecosystem," he said. "I want the whole movement to benefit from every new member."

Breaking down cost barriers

Pitt recognized the original $30,000 membership fee is higher than what other bodies charge. However, he said it's the only source of revenue for the non-profit.

The announcement of the lower membership option follows scrutiny of the ONF last year for its high membership costs. The ONF develops the OpenFlow protocol through its board, which is dominated by a number of large network operators and enterprises that use OpenFlow, including Google, Goldman Sachs and Facebook.  It is also populated by established network hardware and data center vendors, including Cisco, HP, Brocade, VMware and IBM.

Many said the high fees prohibited startups, research organizations, and other individual engineers from joining the community and contributing to the standard. Some even said this resulted in the premature commercialization of OpenFlow, which they predicted could lead to problems in SDN uptake.

Beyond that, the steep fees also restricted access to important information that could help engineers make technology investment decisions. Meanwhile, other standards-making bodies, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, make membership free and all development information public.

Creating an equal playing field

Now members who are paying less to participate in the ONF don't have to worry about their scope of influence, Pitt said. Even though startups are seeing a fee that's dramatically reduced, Pitt is hoping they will be as equally influential as the non-profit's larger companies.

"If you have a small company that comes in and makes a contribution at a critical point, they can have a tremendous influence," he said. "A lot of our members are involved and participating to learn and stay abreast, so they can make sure they have products out there when specifications are ready. Some are more interested in influencing the outcomes than others, and that's usually how it is with a body like this … the most invested have the most influence, and others accumulate benefits by being there as it happens."

Pitt said there hasn't been a separate membership category or fee reduction made yet for research institutions. However, the ONF launched its research associate program last April, which gives research associates from various institutions full participation rights in the ONF.  The research organization isn't a member, Pitt said, but the associate does have say in the non-profit and can recruit and sponsor fellow associates.

"The ecosystem is growing, and more people are contributing to it," Pitt said. "We're just starting to see the fruits [of the ONF] move the industry and bring it together … people say it's like herding cats, but it's really like herding mosquitos. Things are coming along … we have new services being explored, trials going on in enterprise networks, and more people devoting time to making this a successful movement."

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Great opportunity for start-ups.