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SDN Startup Traces Roots to Cisco

Plumgrid's founders gave Cisco a taste of software-defined networking a few years ago. Now they've got the VC backing to try it on their own

Craig Matsumoto

August 8, 2012

3 Min Read
SDN Startup Traces Roots to Cisco

Plumgrid is the hipster startup: It was into software-defined networking (SDN) before it was cool.

In fact, Plumgrid staffers were working on it at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), back when Cisco was giving OpenFlow a shot.

Cisco and OpenFlow?

It's true. From about 2006 to 2008, Cisco was nurturing early work on the OpenFlow protocol, hosting Stanford University professors including Nick McKeown, who's credited with a leading role in making OpenFlow happen, and Guido Appenzeller, who's now CEO of OpenFlow startup Big Switch Networks .

Two of the employees at that time, Pere Monclus and Valentina Alaria, went on to help found Plumgrid in early 2011 -- they're CTO and director of product management, respectively -- pursuing some of the questions they'd begun tackling at Cisco.

Their work so far has netted Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Plumgrid a US$10.7 million Series A round from U.S. Venture Partners and Hummer Winblad Venture Partners , two pretty substantial venture capital names. Plumgrid announced the funding on Wednesday, following up a $2 million seed round that U.S. Venture supplied last year.

Plumgrid's founders aren't revealing the product they're working on, and any questions along those lines lead to vague descriptions of SDN's general proposition. Namely, that the cloud is creating the opportunity to change network infrastructure into software.

One thing that might make Plumgrid different is its pedigree. In addition to having systems-level expertise, the company has a former chip executive at the helm. CEO Awais Nemat was vice president of the enterprise division at Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), a unit that included Marvell's networking and switching businesses. (Nemat also worked at Cisco, from 1998 to 2005, where he first met Monclus.)

The Marvell experience matters, Nemat says, because the rise of merchant Ethernet chips is a big factor in why SDN is getting its shot at the big time. They've made it possible to build a switch that can rival the quality of what Cisco had been able to do with ASICs. (Just ask Arista Networks Inc. .)

On top of that, there's the trend where "everybody became everything," as Nemat puts it: Cisco selling servers as part of its Unified Computing System, while Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL) and HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ) get into networking. The lines between systems vendors are blurring as each one tries to cover a wider patch of the data center.

While that's happening, customers are watching Amazon Web Services Inc. and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and seeing that it might be possible to build a better network without relying on any of those big vendors.

"The confluence of these three effects gives rise to this opportunity" for SDN, Nemat says.

The vague part
Plumgrid isn't publicly specifying what it's going to do about all that. The eventual product, to emerge late this year or early in 2013, will have something to do with network virtualization and will be based on SDN.

The vagueness is a little bit understandable, considering that the world doesn't necessarily know what it's going to do with SDN, if anything. Startups are still investigating what approaches will be marketable.

Here's one hint. OpenFlow and most other SDN work so far has targeted the control plane. Specifically, OpenFlow creates an external controller that can tell various Ethernet switches how to forward packets.

But there's more to life. "Networking is about moving packets, so a better abstraction has to come for the data plane" as well, CTO Monclus says. So, some of Plumgrid's work could involve abstractions for the data plane as well as the control plane.

Nemat asks for patience, too, pointing out that server virtualization started around 1998 and took years to become a big deal. Network virtualization is just starting out, and any transformation of the network that occurs will be a long process, he says.

That process requires brainpower. Plumgrid's headcount is currently in the high 20s, Nemat says, but with $10.7 million to play with, the company obviously expects to hire more staff.

— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Craig Matsumoto

Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Yes, THAT Craig Matsumoto – who used to be at Light Reading from 2002 until 2013 and then went away and did other stuff and now HE'S BACK! As Editor-in-Chief. Go Craig!!

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