Opinion: Networking may be about to become interesting again

Virtualisation is providing an impetus for new developments in networking, says David Marshall

Big Switch Networks, a startup just emerging from stealth mode, is said to be building a new platform that will bring the benefits of virtualisation and cloud architecture to enterprise networks. To help see that vision through, the company recently announced it has secured $13.75 million in a Series A financing round led by Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures. Big Switch Networks was co-founded last year by CEO Guido Appenzeller and Vice President of Sales and Marketing Kyle Forster. Along with the new funding, the company added a list of heavy hitters to its board of directors, including Mark Leslie, former CEO of Veritas; Bill Meehan, leader of McKinsey and Co.'s West Coast and private equity practices and director emeritus; Shirish Sathaye, partner at Khosla Ventures and former vice president of engineering and CTO of Fore Systems and Alteon WebSystems; and Mike Volpi, a partner at Index Ventures and former senior vice president/general manager of the Routing Technology Group at Cisco. Big Switch Networks' perspective states that advances over the last few years in compute virtualisation have left enterprise networking behind, and that it was now time for networking to have its very own VMware. While many believe networking has become boring and commoditized, Big Switch Networks wants to make enterprise networking exciting again. To help them achieve that goal, the company is relying on the newfound ability to program enterprise networking gear with the OpenFlow communications protocol, a project that Appenzeller was involved in developing while at Stanford University. Much as how server, desktop, or storage virtualization creates an abstraction layer to alleviate the need for specific hardware, Big Switch Networks plans on leveraging the OpenFlow standard for its own networking virtualisation. The company's website states the following: Prior to [OpenFlow], we've simply never had a programmatic way to reach deep enough in to enterprise-grade networking devices to do what we need to do. Configuring a network, to us, is modifying the inputs used in network algorithms imprinted deep in embedded hardware and software. Programming a network, which is what we need to do, implies relying on these algorithms most of the time but over-riding them every once in a while. A simple case in point: our virtual networks don't need spanning tree. Rather than creating a new paradigm, Big Switch Networks believes there is an opportunity to slip in a virtualization layer underneath the existing one. The company further states: "As new applications, new departments or new classes of traffic emerge, we believe that a networking team should have the choice of whether to manage that via the familiar tools of the underlying physical network or via those same familiar tools applied to a virtual network on top." As an explanation, the company defines network virtualization by calling out three fundamental principles:

  • Hosts on the network see the virtual topology, not the underlying physical topology.
  • Application or department-level admins manage their virtual topology, not the underlying physical topology.
  • The central team can add capacity when needed by scaling out the underlying physical topology without impacting the virtual topologies on top.

Big Switch Networks may have the juice needed to pull off its stated mission. But to give it that extra nudge, the company has joined up with the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), a nonprofit organization committed to furthering the OpenFlow standard and other software-defined networking (SDN) technologies as a way to speed innovation in the networking industry. The ONF was established last month by six leading companies that own and operate some of the largest networks in the world: Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo. Joining these six founding companies in creating ONF are 17 member companies, including major equipment vendors, networking and virtualization software suppliers, and chip technology providers. Indeed, it sounds like networking may well be on the path to becoming "interesting" again. In the meantime, we'll have to watch and see how SDN, OpenFlow, and network virtualization start showing up in our networks. Marshall is the founder and owner of the VMblog website and is senior director of marketing and social media strategist at Hyper9

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