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Intel Invests in Big Switch

Craig Matsumoto
News Analysis
Craig Matsumoto

Big Switch Networks is announcing Friday that Intel Capital is an investor, a pairing that suggests the rise of so-called white-box switches -- generic systems built with off-the-shelf chips -- might be imminent.

Big Switch isn't quite wording it that way. (In fact, executives declined to say anything about their plans.) But the company has made no secret of its disdain for the current state of networking, where big vendors (primarily Cisco Systems Inc.) dominate the market with proprietary systems based on ASICs.

"There's a clear trend toward horizontalization -- getting away from the model where everything comes pre-integrated from one vendor," says Guido Appenzeller, Big Switch's CEO. Any of the "hyperscale" Web/cloud players -- the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon Web Services LLC -- have "at least tried" some form of horizontal development in the data center, he says.

Intel invested $6.5 million in Big Switch's Series B funding, bringing Big Switch's total funding to more than US$45 million. The Series B round itself was announced in October and included investors Redpoint Ventures and Goldman Sachs & Co. (See Big Switch Raises $25M for OpenFlow Push.)

It's not hard to see why Intel is interested. Big Switch is developing applications that take advantage of the OpenFlow protocol, which theoretically could replace the routing or switching software that's in a box from a company like Cisco.

That would be a major step toward producing white-box switches. Another major piece required would be the Ethernet switching chip itself. Broadcom Corp. leads that market, but Intel, with the 2011 acquisition of Fulcrum Microsystems, is trying hard to strengthen its footing there.

An ecosystem around white boxes is starting to emerge. Pica8 Inc. recently came out with its reference design for such a switch. So did Intel, for that matter: a design called Seacliff Trail that was announced in September. (See Buying Into the New Cisco.)

If you needed any more evidence that white-box switching is working up a head of steam, some big data-center owners (Google, for instance) and large financial institutions are proclaiming their interest in the concept. They're uniting their voices into the Open Networking Users Group (ONUG), which is convening Feb. 13 in Boston. (Note: Google isn't part of ONUG.)

"You will see some of the largest customers in the world demanding some very specific mandates, one of which is standardization, which implies white boxes," says Jason Matlof, Big Switch's vice president of marketing.

Cisco has countered that ASICs will remain crucial to high-end systems. It's preaching a different vision of software-defined networking (SDN) based on application programming interfaces (APIs) reaching into different layers of the network -- but it's also started warming to the idea of having its switches support OpenFlow. (See Cisco Extends Its SDN & Cloud Plans and Juniper's SDN Will Build Service Chains.)

But getting back to the original point: It's clear Intel Capital isn't investing in Big Switch just for kicks. The idea was championed inside Intel by the Fulcrum group, after they got acquired in 2011, Matlof says.

Of course, Intel was familiar with Big Switch before then, as were all the major chip vendors. Appenzeller has been talking SDN with them since 2008, when he took over the OpenFlow project at Stanford University.

For more

— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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Craig Matsumoto
Craig Matsumoto,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/11/2013 | 8:12:16 PM
re: Intel Invests in Big Switch
Couple things:-á I didn't mean to imply that Google is somehow driving ONUG (I think they're not even part of it).

Also -- should point out, Big Switch itself is not saying that white boxes are imminent or that it's their company's definite future.-á That's more my analysis of the situation (and, frankly, the conclusion that I bet 99% of you are drawing from the news anyway).-á It's also worth keeping in mind that Intel doesn't always do anything with the things Intel Capital invests in.

I'll make some appropriate tweaks to the story.
User Rank: Light Beer
2/11/2013 | 5:31:03 PM
re: Intel Invests in Big Switch
Generic, CPU-based software-programmed-áhardware for networking functions? That might have worked IF the CPUs were getting faster -- but that's-áNOT happening. The clock rates have not increased for several years now. Multiple processor cores will not allow speeding up processing automatically, and normally the processing performance actually begins to decrease after just handful or two cores.

Also, in service provider equipment,-á99%+ of networking protocol-áprocessing-ádecisions are done in custom hardware logic without any interaction with software.

Yes there can (and should) be an open standard for configuring the operating parameters for (abstracted) hardware via server software. However the performance etc differentiating capabilities of networking products/services will still be mainly derived from the custom hardware design of given equipment.
Craig Matsumoto
Craig Matsumoto,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/9/2013 | 12:01:33 AM
re: Intel Invests in Big Switch
-áTrue, but I don't think that changes Intel's desire to see the merchant chip market explode, and white-box networking would be a good way to get there.
User Rank: Light Beer
2/8/2013 | 5:28:26 PM
re: Intel Invests in Big Switch
Don't forget. -áIntel runs a chip foundry for Cisco. -á
Craig Matsumoto
Craig Matsumoto,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/8/2013 | 6:37:41 AM
re: Intel Invests in Big Switch
Broadcom would have been a more provocative investor, but Intel is the one that actually has a venture arm - and Intel is the one with more catching-up to do, besides.

Interesting timing, with regards to ONUG. Should help fuel a lot of discussion at that meeting.
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