The march toward software-defined networking will be a long slog given current investments in the installed base, but industry forces are coalescing rapidly in anticipation of the huge benefits to be reaped from this fundamental shift in the way we build and run networks.
Besides a host of legacy players that are now on board -- including the likes of HP, Brocade, Juniper, Arista, Extreme and even Cisco with its investment in Insieme -- the movement got a boost last week when Big Switch Networks, an SDN poster child, unveiled the commercial availability of a product portfolio that has been years in the making [see "OpenFlow startup takes aim at Cisco, VMware"].
Big Switch is a core player because one of its co-founders, Guido Appenzeller, headed the Stanford University lab that developed the OpenFlow v1.0 protocol and the reference switch and controller implementations. Together these make it possible for software on a controller to command a network full of OpenFlow-enabled data handling devices, centralizing, homogenizing and simplifying that otherwise weighty task.
The Big Switch announcement is particularly important because last January the company made the core of its Big Network Controller available as an open source project called Floodlight, and that effort is gaining widespread support among the academic, vendor and user communities. Jason Matlof, Big Switch vice president of marketing, says Floodlight has been downloaded more than 10,000 times this year.
That's heady stuff for a young company, and may help ensure some future success, particularly when it comes to ensuring there are lots of compatible controllers out there for the other components in Big Switch's roll out: the first two apps for the controller.
The real magic of SDN, after all, will be driven by the applications that ride on top of and take advantage of the software-controlled network. Big Switch's first two include a tool for building virtual networks and another for centrally monitoring your SDN. But if Floodlight is widely embraced, we can expect a host of other apps -- for everything from traffic engineering to network access control -- to emerge from all corners of the community. Matlof says Big Switch partners have five other core apps in beta now.
Ultimately the industry needs a standard for the northbound connection from the controller to those apps, just as OpenFlow fulfills that roll on the southbound side to the data handling gear. That would enable any SDN app to run on any controller. Big Switch's principal architect, Rob Sherwood, is leading that effort at the Open Networking Foundation, but it is still early days.
In the meantime, Big Switch's efforts on the open source front with Floodlight position it nicely. The company's coming-out party is an important milestone in the march toward SDN.