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OpenFlow Will Change Network Architecture

InformationWeek Interop Digital Supplement - May 2011
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Kyle Forster

Forget cloud and consumerization. The buzz among the tech cognoscenti at Interop 2011 in Las Vegas, a UBM TechWeb event, is OpenFlow, and when you think OpenFlow, you think Big Switch Networks. At least that’s the hope of Big Switch co-founder Kyle Forster. We sat down with Forster as Interop was kicking off.

InformationWeek: Tell us about Big Switch.

Kyle Forster: The company is a new startup. We're building products based on OpenFlow. We believe that OpenFlow does three things. Well, let me say that differently. OpenFlow does three things that traditional networking can't do, or can't do easily: virtualization, advanced forwarding, and programmability. And for us, we're really focused on the virtualization piece. So we're building a software platform for network virtualization, targeted at the enterprise data center and campus LAN.

That's sort of the company side of it. We recently got our A-round financing, so the company is sort of hitting this inflection point, starting to grow like crazy. We're just about a year and a half old. I'm one of the two co-founders. My co-founder, Guido [Appenzeller], and I are friends from grad school. We've always kept in touch. We've tried to recruit each other back and forth a couple of times. And about a year and a half ago or so, I was moving back to the Bay area and I went out to lunch with him … and we started talking about his research. He'd been working on OpenFlow at that point for two and a half years, give or take.

He led the engineering team that published at Stanford the OpenFlow 1.0 spec. We started talking about this thing. He was incredibly proud of it, really enamored by it. Kept talking about it. I was trying to help him out with some of my experience from Cisco that I thought would work in the market, and we went from basically an every-couple-of-weeks lunch to a once-a-week lunch. I downloaded the open source piece that he was working on and got something up and running myself, and that, for me, was the eye-opener. In 48 hours I had this sort of interesting little thing--far from a product, but it's something that I could kind of see using on a day-to-day basis, as a fingerprinting app to tell you what operating systems are coming on a network. It solved some of the really hard, intractable problems that I saw when I was at Cisco easily and so elegantly. My plan was never to do a startup. I had a couple of job offers at Cisco, I had an offer at Juniper, I was absolutely doing that. But it was just one of those things I couldn't pass up. So he left Stanford in March, we closed our seed funding in April, we posted in May, had our first prototype out in basically midsummer.

InformationWeek: Can you give us the basics on OpenFlow?

Forster: The place where I would start is, there's OpenFlow the protocol, and there's OpenFlow the architecture. The best metaphor that I give is that OpenFlow looks a lot like the x86 instruction set. By itself, that doesn't do a whole lot without a lot of very manual programming. So it sort of comes from kind of a humble start. The [OpenFlow] architecture looks like the x86 instruction set, plus a whole series of applications on top, plus an entire programming language for you to do whatever else you want that you can't happen to find already. But the really interesting part is where the OpenFlow architecture is going, and we think that this year’s Interop is going to be a big coming-out party for an awful lot of this stuff.

As we look at OpenFlow architectures, there are three really interesting pieces. A few of them are trying to do what switching and routing can do today. I don't think those are going to last all that long. The ones that really bring something new, I think, are doing three new things: They're doing virtualization, so we have our own particular take on virtualization. I think everybody that gets into this starts saying, "Wow, there's a either multi-tenant or multi-team story here with OpenFlow, and we can do this in a way that's hard to do otherwise." There's advance forwarding. Networks don't look like trees anymore. In the campus LAN you simply see more and more funky devices that don't have traditional operating systems that move around. And in the data center you just see the need for non-tree topologies, as with virtual machines that move around. So there's a sort of advanced forwarding component, and we believe the state-of-the-art OpenFlow architectures are going to have some form of advance forwarding that gets rid of spanning tree, a big advance for the industry overall if we can really get that in the market.

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