Big Switch Networks Open Sources OpenFlow Controller Software


Network virtualization startup Big Switch Networks this week confirmed the release of an open-source controller based on OpenFlow, the increasingly popular switching and communications protocol that addresses packet routing on a software layer that's separate from a network's physical infrastructure.

Big Switch is releasing the source code for Floodlight, its controller software, via its web site. The hope is to spur app development around the controller while also anticipating the release of a commercial version of Floodlight later this year, according to Big Switch co-founder Kyle Forster.

"We're building applications ourselves, but we're also actively working with partners who are building their own applications on top," Forster told CRN this week. "Why open source? We look at MySQL as a lighthouse example: we can get to an incredibly high performance, high quality code base for a core controller."

The major theoretical benefit of OpenFlow, one of the key protocols in the so-called software-defined networking (SDN) movement, is its flexibility. OpenFlow controllers can send instructions to any OpenFlow-enabled switch, regardless of who manufactured it, making it easy for organizations to build virtualized networking infrastructure that's easier to program and easier to customize. Much attention has shifted to OpenFlow could affect big networking players like Cisco and Juniper thanks to how widespread adoption of OpenFlow products would further commoditize the switch market.

[Related: The 10 Coolest Startups Of 2011]

Big Switch, which was founded in 2010 and is based in Palo Alto, Calif., has been one of OpenFlow's most visible proponents, and has sought to position itself as the "VMware of networking." A number of other highly buzzed-about startups, including Nicira and Embrane, have also come into focus in the past year as they take aim at the virtualization of network technologies.

Big Switch's Floodlight controller is being offered under Apache 2.0, the open-source license used by the OpenStack cloud computing project, as well as other popular projects like Hadoop. According to Big Switch, it was developed from a previous controller called Beacon by David Erickson, a Big Switch Networks advisor and Stanford University Ph.d candidate, and built in Java.

Big Switch's focus for the next few months will be growing its developer partnerships, Forster said, and it has begun discussing a formal partner program -- one that would include potentially interested VARs and systems integrators -- for launch down the road. The company has also been hiring like crazy, Forster said. Last year, it poached key executive talent from vendors like Avaya, VMware and Arista Networks, though Forster said the company's focus remains on hiring engineers.

"We're absolutely convinced the industry's going to go this way, but we're in early days yet," Forster said. "Nearly every product that's in this ecosystem is in Beta right now. I'd expect 2012 to be the year when an awful lot of these take over from Beta and become 1.0 programs, and after that I'd expect to see some formal VAR programs take shape. We've gone from hey, can we get this to work in a lab setting, to how do we smooth out workflows and make this palatable for our 100th customer in very little time."

Big Switch is one of the marquee participants in the Open Networking Summit, a conference focused on OpenFlow and SDN that premiered last fall. The second Open Networking Summit is April 16-18 in Santa Clara, Calif., and Google, NTT, Verizon and researchers from Stanford University -- not to mention Cisco -- are among the vendors that have been confirmed to participate.