As software-defined networking (SDN) continues to disrupt the communications networking industry, more executives are migrating from large, traditional hardware vendors to startups.
Big Switch Networks , an early SDN proponent, has gained as much as anyone from that trend. Its most recent hires include Doug Murray, who joined the company as CEO in November and is looking to take it in new directions beyond its SDN controller legacy.
It might seem strange to describe any company as having any kind of legacy in SDN, a market barely more than two years old, but Big Switch made an early impact with its widely downloaded, OpenFlow-based SDN controller many months before that market segment filled up with other startups. Of course, those early movers were eventually joined by vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Murray's previous employer, Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR).
In 2013, Big Switch recognized the need to develop more differentiation to survive the crush of new options. By that time, it was also fending off M&A speculation. (See Big Switch CEO: We're Not for Sale.)
More significantly, it admitted to a flaw in its original approach. "The original premise was to play to the emergence of OpenFlow and overlay networks," Murray told Light Reading in a wide-ranging interview. "The board decided to shift on the belief that the overlay model wouldn't effectively scale over time. It was rife with challenge, not only technically but in terms of go-to-market."
The company hasn't pulled a shroud over its controller. It has looked to broaden its value in the past year by announcing its own version of the original Floodlight-based controller in the form of its Big Switch Controller, a Switch Light thin data plane switching platform, and a Big Tap monitoring fabric. "We still have our controller, but in a market where everyone has one, you need to have differentiation beyond the controller," Murray said.
However, the newest elements of the strategic shift Big Switch initiated in the months before Murray's hiring -- a shift he was picked to execute -- will also put Big Switch on an even more direct collision course with the giants of the hardware game, in particular Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and its application-centric infrastructure strategy. (See Cisco Unveils Application-Centric Infrastructure.)
Bare metal + SDN
"We decided we're going to use bare metal switches and SDN software in the datacenter to do two things," Murray said. "The first is a series of applications to enhance the network you have today." To that end, Big Switch put some time recently into refining its Big Tap monitoring application; version 3.0 shipped during the past few weeks.
Big Switch has other applications besides Big Tap ready to introduce, but it wanted to focus on "doing one application exceptionally well, rather than have 10 applications that are just OK," he said. "When I came into the company, we had a whiteboard with more than 10 potential application ideas. It's easy to look at SDN in the datacenter and see all these different things you can do with it, but as a young company, we need to have a priority of focus."
That said, Murray spent his first 90 days at Big Switch helping to develop a 2014 rollout plan for the second prong of the bare metal SDN plan: a hybrid physical and virtual cloud fabric with a similar purpose as Cisco's ACI. "We're building a cloud fabric that will replace your network. As people get comfortable with SDN, we'll have a cloud fabric that will displace the incumbent [vendors] in the market today."
Big Switch previewed its Unified Physical+Virtual Cloud Fabric in demonstration mode last fall. Murray said it will be available in the coming months. (See Big Switch Previews App-Aware SDN Cloud Fabric.)
Displacing incumbents is a big ambition for a small company that had its early foothold in the SDN controller market squeezed by some of those incumbents. However, like others in the SDN community, Murray insists that the much-hyped radical change in networking really is starting to happen. The evidence is in the growing adoption of bare metal networking gear, in particular by influential companies such as Google and Facebook. "They're challenging the status quo of networking in the datacenter and saying, 'We'll do this ourselves and buy bare metal switches and write software optimized to our own applications.'"
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