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Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
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Big Switch Leaves OpenDaylight, Touts White-Box Future

Big Switch is stepping away from the OpenDaylight project, which is building an open-source controller. As it departs, the company says the market clamors for white-box SDN switches. Is that right?

Big Switch Networks, one of the visionary leaders in the software-defined networking (SDN) vendor community, has stepped down from the OpenDaylight project, which aims to build an open source controller and APIs for software defined networks. Why is Big Switch leaving? That depends on how you look at it.

One way to view it is that they were squeezed out of the project by competing interests--that is, Cisco. Frankly, I'm not sure how else to view it. Big Switch joined a bit late and pushed to have Floodlight be a significant part of the controller code base.

Cisco also contributed code from its own ONE Controller product. A proposal was made to merge the two, but the OpenDaylight Project (ODL) voted to go with the Cisco controller code as a base instead of merging the Floodlight and Cisco code together. The message to Big Switch seemed to be, "Thanks but no thanks."

Now, there might well be legitimate technical reasons for this. Or procedural ones. Or practical ones. I didn't dig through all of the concerns raised that lead to a Cisco controller code base for ODL. Perhaps the ODL voting entities acted altruistically in what they believe to be the best way forward for SDN. But you have to wonder, with all the heavy-hitting big-name networking vendors in the mix, is altruism even possible?

[ For more analysis of the OpenDaylight Project, read Cisco and OpenDaylight: The SDN Application Land Grab ]

Over lunch recently, I heard ODL described by someone not all that engaged in SDN as "that Cisco-IBM project." Wow. Take that in for a moment. For an open-source project, that sort of a description is a blow. Can you blame Big Switch (which admittedly has a business of its own to build) for turning a jaundiced eye toward ODL?

Guido Appenzeller, Big Switch's CEO, highlights the company's viewpoint in his blog post on this topic.

He wrote, "Specifically, the market is clamoring for a transition toward 'bare metal switches,' or 'white box switches,' which provide customers an ability to rack-n-stack switches and centrally provision them just like they do with data center rack servers today. This market trend has recently been validated by the user community, including the recently announced Open Compute Project's networking reference design, the Open Network Foundation's ongoing OpenFlow work, as well as some other exciting projects that are forming and will be announced soon."

He also took a shot at Cisco with this line about commodity network gear: "While forward-thinking customers are committed to this trend, we question whether or not the incumbent hardware vendors leading OpenDaylight have a similar commitment."

Cisco is not at all interested in a marketplace of white-box switches because it would upend its multibillion-dollar business selling switches built on custom ASICs. Those ASCIs are one of Cisco's differentiators and a big part of its value proposition. If Cisco were to go in the white-box direction, they end up in a game of volume instead of margin, and that would hurt the bottom line. In the Cisco lingo, hardware matters. Expect to be getting that message loud and clear in the coming months.

How much of this factored into the ODL decision to go with the Cisco controller code? I'm not sure, but I guess that it was a meaningful part of what is surely a more complicated story, especially considering the number of vendors involved.

So what does this mean for SDN in the long term? A few thoughts come to mind.

First, Big Switch has a significant ecosystem built around Floodlight, and the company is banking its long-term relevance on its existing community and on continued development. In the same blog post referenced above, Guido states, "...we will focus our efforts on the Floodlight user community. Expect some exciting announcements later this year." Floodlight still matters, and it is not a foregone conclusion that ODL will eclipse Floodlight. Ah, capitalism--let the marketplace sort it out.

Second, there's room for more than one controller in the market, as evidenced by the number of open source and other controllers that already exist. ODL is not a standard, nor is ODL compliance yet "a thing." Big Switch has lots of space here to make a go of it. Conversely, ODL has lots of space to screw up, squabble internally and fail to deliver on market expectations. I doubt that's the ODL future, but time will tell.

Finally, despite Guido's assertion of market interest in white-box switches, I think that's a myopic view. The fact is that most end users have no idea what SDN can do for them, or why they might want a white-box switch.

From years of enterprise networking experience I know that many customers don't trust white-box solutions. They place their confidence in a brand that's got a toll-free support number attached. White-box switches appeal to the massive service providers of the world, but enterprise customers are also going to have their say in how SDN shakes out. Why? Enterprises as an aggregate represent more money.

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Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/7/2013 | 3:46:41 PM
re: Big Switch Leaves OpenDaylight, Touts White-Box Future
Enterprises as an aggregate represent more money now, and for the rest of the decade most likely, but after that, all bets are off. It will make sense for only the very largest companies to have their own facilities. Most others will decide that a combination of public IaaS and co-lo-hosted private cloud is the way to go vs. maintaining their own data centers as complexity goes through the roof.
Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/6/2013 | 8:55:22 PM
re: Big Switch Leaves OpenDaylight, Touts White-Box Future
It seems to me that Cisco is working at cross purposes with itself. The whole point of an open source code base is to attract developers, which is why Cisco is participating in ODL. I think it would have been smart politically for Cisco to play nice with Big Switch, because Big Switch has more credibility with the open source community than Cisco. By playing nice, Cisco had an opportunity to maybe win over some developers.

However, Cisco is also defending its marketshare. And if Big Switch's goal is to build software for bare metal or white box machines, that's a direct attack on marketshare, and Cisco's defense mechanisms kick in and it decides to thwart Big Switch.

That said, as Tom Nolle points out in his own blog on the subject (, it's VMware, not Big Switch, that really has Cisco worried.
User Rank: Apprentice
6/6/2013 | 5:33:02 PM
re: Big Switch Leaves OpenDaylight, Touts White-Box Future
Ellen from Big Switch -- Good analysis Ethan. A couple of clarifications. We did not join OpenDaylight late. We were charter Platinum members and began proposing code contributions immediately.

Agree on your comments that certain customers have prohibitive concerns around white box switches. There is a set of sophisticated customers who have no issues with white boxes, but there is a large set of customers who prefer to buy branded solutions and support, which is why we say "bare metal" rather than white box. We expect OEMs like Dell and Extreme, who has already announced it will ship a switch based on our Switch Light thin switching OpenFlow software platform, to participate in the bare metal switching market, as many OEMs like Dell and HP participate in the bare metal server market. They sell brand, support and service and have built their businesses around lower margins than the proprietary crowd. The Open Compute Project focused on networking, in which we are also participating, will further advance this shift.
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