Big Switch's OpenFlow Controller Guns for SDN Leadership

Big Switch Networks, an ambitious start up in software-defined networking (SDN), has launched a new controller and a pair of networking applications that have the potential to drive OpenFlow-based networks into the mainstream.

Greg Ferro

November 13, 2012

7 Min Read
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Big Switch Networks has launched an OpenFlow controller called Big Network Controller. The controller is designed to interact with third-party network devices that support the OpenFlow protocol, and to provide a programmatic interface for applications. A controller is an essential component of an OpenFlow-based SDN architecture that aims to increase automation and streamline network configuration.

The Big Network Controller is a software package that runs on a customer-provided server. It supports up 1,000 network devices, a maximum of 250,000 new host connections per second and can deliver 600,000 OpenFlow updates per second. Today it ships as active/standby for high availability but will support active/active HA in the future. The company says it has plans to enable more than two controllers to act as a cluster.

This February, Big Switch released Floodlight, an open-source version of its controller, to the market. Written in Java and available for free under an Apache software license, Floodlight has been used to develop and test applications for OpenFlow-enabled networks. The new Big Network Controller is fully API-compatible with the FloodLight controller, which means applications written for Floodlight should interoperate with the new commercial version of the controller.

Big Switch isn't the only vendor to offer an OpenFlow-based controller. NEC has already come to market with its ProgrammableFlow controller and an OpenFlow switch. HP has pre-announced a controller and a pair of SDN applications. The controller is scheduled for release in 2013. IBM has also announced a controller. Cisco Systems quietly demonstrated a controller at Cisco Live 2012 in San Diego. Several start-ups also have their own controllers.

Many vendors are rolling out a controller because it is the core of an OpenFlow-enabled network. It sits between network devices at one end, and a set of applications at the other. Applications communicate with the controller to request network services. The controller uses the OpenFlow protocol to configure network devices and choose the optimal path through the network for application traffic.

In addition to launching a controller, Big Switch Networks has also rolled out two applications that take advantage of the controller. Big Virtual Switch is an SDN application that abstracts the entire physical network into a logical construct. Today, virtual networks are defined by MPLS VRFs, or VLANs or by overlay tunnelling. Big Virtual Switch uses OpenFlow capabilities of flow mapping to define virtual networks using any criteria you like. It could be source MAC and destination MAC (roughly equivalent to VLANs), or source physical port to destination physical port. Network engineers could also define a virtual network by source and destination IP addresses. In this case, the engineer could have a single server participating in multiple virtual networks according to the source/destination IP address pair.

Network virtualization can replace the complexity of VLANs and tunnelling with a simple set of rules that are programmed into the network via the controller. Of course, programming flow tables can be complex. Big Switch noted that network engineers will have to learn a new networking nomenclature around OpenFlow.

Big Tap is an application that creates flow maps that emulate network taps for traffic interception. It makes a copy of all frames on an Ethernet port and dispatches the copy out an egress port. Big Tap offers a whole new feature set that used to require expensive network security products. The Big Network Controller has data on all the switches in the network and is able to express an API for them. Big Tap can then trunk the tapped traffic through other switches and deliver that traffic to its final destination, such as an IDS or packet analysis system.

Pricing for Big Network Controller starts at $1,700 per month. Big Virtual Switch starts at $4,200 per month. Big Tap starts at $500 per month. All three products are available now.

Next page: The Cisco QuestionBig Switch's controller will interoperate with third-party switches that support the OpenFlow protocol version 1.0. To that end, Big Switch has announced official partnerships with Arista, Brocade, Dell and Extreme, and also claims to have performed interoperability testing on switches from IBM, HP and Juniper.

And what about Cisco Systems? Cisco has announced it will support OpenFlow in two switches, the Catalyst 3570-x and 3560-x, but Big Switch said it had not been able to test interoperability between its controllers and the Cisco switches. Given Cisco's dominance in the switching market, Cisco's absence removes a significant source of potential customers from Big Switch's plate.

As mentioned, Cisco has announced that it will develop its own controller, called the ONE controller, and also stated that a controller function will be included in IOS as part of its OnePK initiative. Cisco promotes a broader vision of SDN than just OpenFlow. Cisco takes the view that OpenFlow is just one small part of the overall requirement for SDN, and that there are dozens of other functions in the network that need configuration and exposure via an API. Cisco has announced that its OnePK platform will provide not only API access to the flow table, but it will also give API access to routing tables, AAA configuration, the physical interface and another 15 or so areas. OpenFlow is just one API of many in OnePK.

Cisco is following its typical approach of embracing a standard and adding proprietary extensions. Consider 802.1d Spanning Tree, which was improved by the proprietary and patented PVST, or TRILL, which was extended by FabricPath.

From a mercenary perspective, Cisco is defending its incumbent position by maximizing the value of its existing software and hardware features, thus defending against being made irrelevant by OpenFlow's simplicity at the device level. It seems that Cisco is making its own future with its OnePK strategy and is choosing not to integrate with wider OpenFlow/SDN community. It's likely that Cisco expects to build its own platform that software partners can use--a platform over which it can exert more control and direction.

Who Rules the Northbound API?

The controller sits between network devices at one end and applications such as firewalls or load-balancing at the other. Thus, the controller requires an API to interface with these applications (in controller parlance, this is the northbound API).

At this point in time, the northbound API between the applications and the controller is not stable or well defined. No single body has defined standards for a northbound API, and it will likely take some time for a consensus to form around the structure and technical features of the API. However, the controller vendor that can gain enough market momentum will have a key role in defining the northbound API.

Big Switch hopes to get an early-to-market advantage on this front. As part of its Big Network Controller launch, it has announced partnerships with Cariden, which has a highly successful network analysis systems for service providers, and with Coraid for ATA-over-Ethernet storage networking. It has also developed a partner ecosystem that includes vendors such as F5 Networks, Citrix Systems, and Palo Alto Networks. Big Switch is also touting its commitment to the open-source community in hopes of building a strong developer ecosystem. By keeping Floodlight as an open-source effort while also tightly linking it to Big Network Controller, developers can build and test with Floodlight and then seamlessly move to production.

However, for third-party vendors, the question of the northbound API is significant; it would take time and money to interface with controller APIs from Cisco, HP, IBM, NEC, Big Switch and whatever other vendor decides to get into the game.

It's possible that software vendors will partner with Big Switch rather than closed products from major vendors. That said, Cisco's gravitational market share is likely to pull in a significant amount of third-party development efforts.

Serious and Significant

Despite the uncertainty that surrounds any start up, the Big Network Controller is a serious and significant technology achievement. It represents a potential watershed for OpenFlow adoption. In conjunction with the Big Virtual Switch, it provides the first software package that configures a multivendor switch network without using MPLS or overlay protocols like VXLAN.

The most important takeaway is that the OpenFlow/SDN movement has a shipping product from a vendor that is strongly positioned to make an impact. The success of Big Switch and its products will test whether the market is ready for OpenFlow-enabled networks.

About the Author(s)

Greg Ferro

Network Architect & Blogger

Greg has nearly 30 years of experience as an IT infrastructure engineer and has been focused on data networking for about 20, including 12 years as Cisco CCIE. He has worked in Asia and Europe as a network engineer and architect for a wide range of large and small firms in many verticals. He has been writing about networking for more than 20 years and in the media since 2001.

You canemail Gregor follow him on Twitter as@etherealmind. He also writes the technical blogEtherealmind.comand hosts a weekly podcast on data networking atPacket Pushers.

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