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Ethan Banks
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Pica8 Unveils SDN Starter Kit

Startup aims to help organizations overcome barriers to software-defined networking with kit that includes its white-box switch and a controller.

Name the greatest barrier preventing you from evaluating software defined networking (SDN). If you’re an executive, perhaps the barrier is cost. If you’re an engineer, the obstacle is probably time.

Taking the time to study and learn a brand new way of doing networking is a time-consuming endeavor. This is especially true with SDN, where not only must new technology be learned, but the value proposition clearly understood. Time is something network engineers don’t tend to have much of.

SDN startup Pica8 grasps these challenges of time and money, and is tackling them with what it calls the "World’s First SDN Starter Kit.” Pica8 is well-positioned to deliver such a kit: It's an A-round venture capital funded startup selling white-box Ethernet switches that be can customized to meet a customer’s needs in a variety of ways. How the switch is managed is customizable, with Linux, OpenFlow, OVSDB, and a traditional CLI as options.

But more than that, how the switch delivers packets is also customizable. And that’s one of SDN’s value propositions: centralized software defining how network switches should forward traffic.

Of course, most organizations have been building networks with autonomous hardware knit together with distributed forwarding protocols for decades now. Dropping in a new router or switch to test is relatively easy in this environment, as the process is well understood -- plug it in, configure the L2 and L3 protocols required to join the local network, and for the most part, off you go.

[Learn how to secure the many components of the SDN in "Securing the Software-Defined Network."]

An SDN environment is different, requiring a controller to program the network hardware. Although many SDN controllers are an open-source download away, there’s still a learning curve an organization must get through to make use of it.

Pica8’s SDN Starter Kit addresses these issues by providing an inexpensive switch and controller, paired with a couple of applications. Here are the details on what’s in the kit:

•Pica8 P-3290 switch. The P-3290 is a 48-port 1Gbps switch with 4 10Gbps SFP+ uplinks. The switch runs Pica8’s PicOS, which, among many features, is OpenFlow 1.3 compliant. OpenFlow 1.3 compliance is a relative rarity as most SDN-capable switches are OpenFlow 1.0 compliant, but not more.

•Ryu, an SDN framework used as the SDN controller. In the controller role, Ryu is the arbiter that interfaces with applications northbound and network devices (the P-3290 in this case) southbound. Pica8 lists Ryu as one of its partners, so this is a pairing that makes sense.

•Network Tap application. Network Tap allows for flexible mirroring of flows traversing a switch, providing a solution similar to what an organization might build with a visibility fabric from companies like Gigamon or Anue Systems (now part of Ixia). Programmatic network tapping using OpenFlow is one of SDN’s go-to demonstration applications, so I’m not surprised to see it here.

•Snort IDS/IPS application. Snort, the open-source IDS/IPS, is well-known to security practitioners. Snort couples nicely with Network Tap, in that traffic flows an organization wants to inspect can be tapped and sent to the Snort engine.

The switch is delivered as just that -- a physical Ethernet switch. Ryu and the accompanying applications are delivered on a CD. To get the kit running, an organization will need to supply a Linux PC capable of running Ubuntu 12.4LTS. The kit also comes with a quick-start guide to get testers off the ground in a promised time of less than an hour.

Pica8 said general availability of the SDN Starter Kit is scheduled for Jan. 20. The kit will list for $8,895.

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