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Murray Leads Big Switch Into Bare Metal Battle

Doug Murray left Juniper Networks to guide Big Switch Networks beyond a crowded SDN controller market and into networking's next great disruption. Was that the right move?

Dan O'Shea

February 13, 2014

6 Min Read
Murray Leads Big Switch Into Bare Metal Battle

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.)

Figure 1: Big Switch CEO Doug Murray. Big Switch CEO Doug Murray.

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.'"

Next page: Open community support

Open community support
Big Switch attended a recent event for the Facebook-led Open Compute Project (OCP) and donated Open Network Linux code to help further the cause for bare metal networking. Yet Big Switch isn't the only one thinking and talking about bare metal networking, and Murray said he saw evidence of that at the OCP event.

"There are some companies that don't get it, but there are some that are starting to make some interesting moves," he said. "Dell did that last week at OCP, talking about working with Cumulus Networks. It was very interesting, and shows they're open to change and how people will do datacenter architectures in the future." (See Dell Opens Arms to Cumulus OS.)

Big Switch made its OCP donation just before the OpenDaylight Summit in early February. The company once looked like it would be one of the major contributors to OpenDaylight, but after applying for platinum membership in the group, it downgraded to a silver membership before withdrawing altogether over a code dispute. It has since put more focus on participating in the OCP's increasing effort to focus on networking issues. (See Big Switch Pulls Back from OpenDaylight, Big Switch Puts OpenDaylight to the Test and Open Compute Project Takes on Networking.)

"Our strategy is to be open, with a focus on the open community," Murray said. "OCP is getting a lot of momentum. We're also involved in the Open Networking Foundation. We're just making sure we pick the vehicles where we can have the most impact. Donating ONL to Open Compute is an example of that."

He did not address the OpenDaylight rift directly, except to say it was before his time. "It's not that we would be against joining OpenDaylight, but our emphasis has been in other areas."

On the move
Murray isn't the only veteran of big metal networking set to join the bare metal networking movement. Before he left Juniper (where he was vice president of Asia-Pacific, Japan, and Greater China for Juniper, Prashant Ghandi left Cisco for Big Switch. He was followed out the door by Jeffrey Wang. More recently, industry veteran Joe Palazola followed Murray over from Juniper. (See Big Switch Appoints VP of Engineering, Cisco Exec Goes to Big Switch, and Big Switch Names Palazola Operations Chief.)

"Broadly across the industry, people are seeing where networking is going, and it seems like the beginning of something," Murray said. "It's a time for disruption." Many of the engineers and executives who are migrating from traditional hardware vendors to software startups likely have startup experience and a thirst to return to that dynamic environment. They are also bringing big company skills that firms such as Big Switch absolutely require.

"They have learned, at bigger companies, better processes and ways of building and shipping products," he said. "I think you have mostly a series of folks who see how compelling SDN is, and they want to participate. It was certainly that way for me."

— Dan O'Shea, Managing Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Dan O'Shea

Analyst, Heavyreading.com

You want Dans? We got 'em! This one, "Fancy" Dan O'Shea, has been covering the telecom industry for 20 years, writing about virtually every technology segment and winning several ASBPE awards in the process. He previously served as editor-in-chief of Telephony magazine, and was the founding editor of FierceTelecom. Grrrr! Most recently, this sleep-deprived father of two young children has been a Chicago-based freelance writer, and continues to pontificate on non-telecom topics such as fantasy sports, craft beer, baseball and other subjects that pay very little but go down well at parties. In his spare time he claims to be reading Ulysses (yeah, right), owns fantasy sports teams that almost never win, and indulges in some fieldwork with those craft beers. So basically, it's time to boost those bar budgets, folks!

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