Big Switch Networks, a new vendor in the nascent but growing field of OpenFlow-based networking, has introduced an open source controller for companies that want to build applications on top of the controller in an environment where network intelligence is in the software-based controller rather than in the physical hardware of routers and switches. Big Switch, which also has a commercial controller offering in beta release, said it is offering the open source controller, called Floodlight, to stimulate development on the OpenFlow protocol.
"We did a public open source [announcement] just because we wanted to add fuel to the fire," says Kyle Forster, co-founder of Big Switch. "By open sourcing it and being very public about it, this will really knock [users] over the wire to say, 'We've been playing with this for a while; let's commit a product team for this area.'"
OpenFlow is the name for the protocol behind this controller layer in a stack that comes between the data layer, made up of Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches moving data across a network, as well as the application layer in which software programs run. The controller layer assigns paths for data to travel in a way that is more efficient than when individual routers and switches manage traffic. OpenFlow enables what IT experts call the software-defined network.
Big Switch is releasing the Apache-based open source Floodlight tool because it wants to move controller development this year from the test phase to live deployment, says Forster.
"It's going to be an exciting year. Most of the products in these tiers are still in beta, and 2012 is going to be the year when a lot of them click over to the 1.0 state," he adds.
Big Switch operates in the data layer, controller layer and application layer, but takes different approaches to each, Forster says. The company operates in the data plane solely in partnership with other companies and operates exclusively on its own in the controller layer, and while it is building its own apps for the application layer, it is also working with partners to develop their applications to run on top of the Big Switch controller layer.
A conference on OpenFlow in October 2011 at Stanford University provided an opportunity for Big Switch to introduce itself and for major networking vendors such as HP and Cisco Systems to explain the work they are doing on the technology. Much of the preliminary research into the OpenFlow protocol was done at Stanford.
SDN technology that is based on OpenFlow has potential to help networks run more smoothly and efficiently--especially in cloud and virtualized environments--because network administration is made easier and more dynamic. IT managers don't have to manually reconfigure switches and routers, and if intelligence is on the software instead of in the hardware, that hardware can be "fast but dumb commodity devices," writes Greg Ferro, a consulting network architect and senior engineer/designer, in a report released this month by InformationWeek, a sister publication of Network Computing.
While the use case for SDN with OpenFlow is compelling, the technology is still in its infancy, Ferro writes.
"SDN and OpenFlow are little more than promises at this point; while several networking vendors support OpenFlow, and startup Big Switch Networks has an Open Flow-based controller in a beta release, the protocol is still in its infancy. And once SDN and OpenFlow become tangible, the controllers will have to prove their capability and reliability before they can expect widespread adoption," he said.
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