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Big Switch's OpenFlow Controller Guns for SDN Leadership

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.

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