Startups Seeking to Shake Up Networking

Networking is ripe for innovation, according to a group of startups developing software to make the network easier to program and control. Much of the energy is focused on open source offerings like the OpenFlow protocol.

Rich Miller

June 24, 2011

4 Min Read
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Network Panelists Structure Conference 2011


Panelist on networking spoke on OpenFlow and other innovations in the networking market. Seated left to right are: Guido Appenzeller, Co-Founder and CEO, Big Switch Networks; Martin Casado, CTO, Nicira Networks; and Dante Malagrino, CEO, Embrane. (Photo credit: Colleen Miller)

SAN FRANCISCO - What a difference a year makes. In June 2010, we began hearing predictions that networking was ready for disruption from James Hamilton of Amazon. "We’re very close to a fundamental change in the networking world," Hamilton said at Velocity 2010, envisioning a future in which open source software would transform networking. “We’ll get our Linux of the networking world."

That same week, Nick McKeown of Stanford outlined the OpenFlow networking standard at the Structure 2010 conference.  Fast forward to March of 2011, when six of the world’s largest data center operators joined forces to throw their support behind OpenFlow.

And now come the startups. At this week's GigaOm Structure 2011 conference, OpenFlow and programmable networks were a hot topic. "There’s been an explosion of companies writing software to do networking," said Jason Hoffman, founder and chief scientist at Joyent, who moderated a panel at Structure on innovation in the networking sector.

Huge Upheaval in Sector

"I think it’s an incredibly exciting time for networking," said Guido Appenzeller, co-founder and CEO of startup Big Switch Networks. "We have a kind of perfect storm in the networking sector. There’s a huge amount of upheaval in the market. It’s open warfare, and it’s an incredible opportunity for startups."

Big Switch is developing enterprise private cloud software based on OpenFlow, which shifts management features from a switch to an external server, simplifying  the task of creating a centralized management plan for a vast network.

Cloud Drives Movement for Change

Big Switch was one of three new companies featured in the panel discussion, along with Nicira and Embrane.  All three are offering software solutions that promise to make it easier to program networking equipment. Cloud computing and huge "web-scale" infrastructures are seen as  key drivers for change in the networking sector.

"We are moving to a world of many clouds in multiple data centers," said Lew Tucker, the CTO for Cloud Computing at networking heavyweight Cisco Systems. "I think that’s going to change app design. A lot of this is really trying to expose the network with virtual networks and abstractions."

Cisco recently began working with the OpenStack consortium to offer a "network as a service" capability for OpenStack, a project initiated by Rackspace and NASA to develop an open source cloud platform.

Pace of Innovation At Issue

Why all this action in the networking space? Panelists said that the pace of innovation in networking has lagged behind the changes on the server side, where virtualization and open source have been key change agents.

"Everything changes very quickly now," said Dane Malagrino, the CEO of Embrane. "The network is too stale. Customers want rapid, programmable provisioning. People are focused on the lack or programmability of the network.

"It’s going to be interesting to see how the incumbent companies respond," Malagrino added. "There’s an existing culture around building the box and building features into the box."

Support for OpenFlow Varies

Brocade was an early mover in building support for OpenFlow into its switches, and reaffirmed its enthusiasm for open standards like Open Stack and OpenFlow at its recent Technology Day. Cisco, for its part, has not yet added OpenFlow support, but joined the Open Networking Foundation, which is focused on boosting the development of an ecosystem to support OpenFlow.

Arista Networks is "very bullish on OpenFlow," according to President and CEO Jayshree Ullal.  "What we see is the network becoming pivotal. OpenFlow is a really friendly architecture and needs to define some APIs."

That's part of the roadmap for Big Switch, which says the environment for networking is changing rapidly. "A year ago the response was 'what’s OpenFlow?' " said Kyle Forster, a co-founder of Big Switch. "The awareness is now broad enough that now enterprises are looking into it.

"I think (OpenFlow) is solving a relevant problem," he added. "We use this as a new architecture to deliver a set of features that are hard to do now. The networking side is really the bottleneck."

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