SDN start-up Big Switch bullish on new course

After last year's retreat from overlays, new CEO is focused on execution of bare metal strategy

SDN start-up Big Switch Networks is ready to embark on a new chapter after rebooting its business late last summer.

Once the most visible and vocal proponent of OpenFlow overlays, Big Switch changed course five months ago to focus on orchestration of physical and virtual networks from bare metal switches. In doing so, Big Switch abandoned the VMware/Nicira strategy to embrace the Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure technique.

The company’s been very quiet since the 180-degree turn. But new CEO Doug Murray, who took the reins 90 days ago after a career at Juniper Networks, believes Big Switch is at the forefront of SDN 2.0.

“I really like where the company’s direction is shifting to in terms of SDN plus bare metal,” Murray said in an interview with Network World. “Eighteen months ago, we were in the hype stage. But in 2014 and into 2015, there are real, tangible solutions that are actually solving problems. I’m excited about the opportunity and being disruptive in the market.”

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: Big Switch lowers forecast for OpenDaylight SDN effort +

If the new business proposition was disruptive to Big Switch, Murray didn’t let on. He said the company’s been refining its strategy and focus over the past 90 days, making sure it’s “not biting off more than we can chew.

“Instead of being broad, we’re much more surgical,” he said, noting his company’s current laser-like focus on the large enterprise data center, though he also noted wins with some LTE carriers in Japan.

Revenue is growing due mostly to sales of the company’s Big Tap 3.0 analytics application, Murray said, adding that Big Switch has plenty of cash, but is considering a C series round of funding once its Cloud Fabric end-to-end cloud operations management software and some new applications ship later this year.

Five live beta customers are kicking the Cloud Fabric tires, and big name accounts like Fidelity Investments and Goldman Sachs are still Big Switch customers, he says. He’s encouraged by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon, which he says are standardizing bare metal hardware by adopting it to run software optimized for their specific applications.

“We have the opportunity to take the Google model to the average company,” Murray says. “If you had to do this all from scratch, how would you do it?”

Big Switch is proposing a “modern” network architecture with scale and multitenancy, that’s got hooks to OpenStack cloud orchestration for single-pane-of-glass simplicity and agility, and the economics to drive down capital and operating expenditures.

On that front, Murray claims Big Switch can offer a 50% to 60% reduction in cost compared to incumbent vendors, which he says is one of the company’s differentiators.

Still, Big Switch faces significant challenges. It’s still a start-up without the sales, service and support infrastructure that large enterprises and carriers trust when they consider purchases. And last summer’s retreat from overlays may have muddied the company’s brand and identity after such a splashy market entry as the poster boy for OpenFlow SDNs.

So the determination is on re-educating the market and executing in it while staving off irrelevancy that often accompanies such a drastic reversal in business plans. Going public with any customer wins would go a long way toward that as well.

“We’ve pulled back, shifted our strategy and now we’re focused on executing,” Murray says. “We’ve learned from the overlay mistakes of the past. We’re a start-up going after a very big piece of the market. The question now becomes how many people jump in and aggressively go after this? We think we’re in a pretty good position at this point.”

And after abandoning the OpenDaylight open source SDN project last year when things apparently didn’t go Big Switch’s way, the company’s found a more receptive audience among the Open Networking Foundation, Open Compute Project and OpenStack crowd. Big Switch just contributed Open Network Linux code to the Open Compute Project, which is a Linux distribution for bare metal switches that includes drivers, loaders and tools to simplify integration with other products.

“We’re certainly watching it,” Murray says of the recent OpenDaylight “Hydrogen” release and Summigt conference, “But our emphasis has been on ONF, OCP and OpenStack.”

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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