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Big Switch's Big Pivot

Company recasts SDN business prop from overlays on partner hardware to physical/virtual on bare metal

It's a big switch for Big Switch. In an effort to broaden the market for its products, Big Switch Networks undertook what company officials are calling a big pivot.

It killed the first release of its Big Virtual Switch application and is now focusing on SDNs that merge the physical and virtual worlds, vs. the OpenFlow-based overlay/underlay approach it had been targeting and advocating. Big Switch is also now offering its products in bundles that run on commodity bare metal switches rather than piecemeal controller, and monitoring and network virtualization applications that run on switches from ecosystem partners. Its SwitchLight "thin" virtual switch was always designed to run on bare metal.

The bundles are called Cloud Fabric, which is about to enter beta, and Monitoring Fabric, which is ramping in the market.

[SPLINTER GROUP: Cisco, VMware and OpenFlow fragment SDNs]

Big Switch has also left the OpenDaylight open source SDN consortium, and saw six of its partners - Juniper, Arista and Brocade among them - jump ship as the company undertook this transformation over the past year. The company's new focus on bare metal hardware was "at odds" with its now former switch partners, says President and Co-founder Kyle Forster.

And some, like Juniper, just went and acquired their own SDN controllers.

Forster said Big Switch's original business proposition of OpenFlow-based three-tier - network, controller, applications -- network virtualization was just too complex for customers.

"It was too complicated, there were too many moving parts to get one working SDN," he says.

By pre-bundling its products and offering them on bare metal hardware, Big Switch hopes its products appeal to a much broader market by drastically cutting implementation time. Its initial customers - financial giants Fidelity and Goldman Sachs are two - found that implementations were taking a year or more.

"Semi-interoperability worked if you had 12 to 18 months to work with it," Forster said. "It was obvious we had to shift to bare metal for the broader market."

And the physical/virtual orchestration approach to SDN network virtualization is much simpler than the overlay/underlay approach, he says. Overlays proved to be very expensive, much more so than the physical/virtual technique.

So now, Big Switch may likely be emphasizing OpenStack rather than OpenFlow. The Cloud Fabric product suite in beta is an OpenStack tool.

"There's only one way to deliver an OpenStack network at (an attractive) price point and it wasn't overlay/underlay," Forster says.

That led to an exodus of Big Switch OpenStack partners like Nebula, Piston Cloud and CloudScaling. And that also led Big Switch to kill Release 1.0 of its Big Virtual Switch, an overlay/underlay network virtualization application, and recast it as part of Cloud Fabric.

Other products, like Big Network Controller, Big Tap network monitoring and SwitchLight live on in both the Cloud and Monitoring Fabric bundles.

Forster says Big Switch will now be less like VMware and its NSX network virtualization platform and more like Cisco's Insieme Application Centric Infrastructure. Insieme's ACI-optimized Nexus hardware is expected to debut Oct. 2.

Despite the about face, Forster says Big Switch will realize its best economic quarter this quarter. And its headcount will remain the same even though the shift resulted in people leaving voluntarily and involuntarily.

"It was a rough pivot," Forster says. "We came to market as an overlay player but fabric is a different skill set. It was tough on people."

Vice President of Marketing Jason Matlof left for A10 Networks.

And Forster scoffed at the rumors that Big Switch might be taken out by Cisco -- or anybody -- for $100 million. He says the company has plenty of money in the bank too. 

As for OpenDaylight, which Big Switch participated initially as a Platinum member, then downgraded to Silver, then left altogether, it was a case of not being welcome to the party.

"They picked a controller that is one to two years behind ours, that has never seen production," Forster says. "If it's successful, we'll port our apps over."

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