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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Intel Invests in Big Switch

 
 
Big Switch Networks is announcing Friday that Intel Capital is an investor, a pairing that suggests the rise of so-called white-box switches -- generic systems built with off-the-shelf chips -- might be imminent.
 
Big Switch isn't quite wording it that way. (In fact, executives declined to say anything about their plans.) But the company has made no secret of its disdain for the current state of networking, where big vendors (primarily Cisco Systems Inc.) dominate the market with proprietary systems based on ASICs.
 
"There's a clear trend toward horizontalization -- getting away from the model where everything comes pre-integrated from one vendor," says Guido Appenzeller, Big Switch's CEO. Any of the "hyperscale" Web/cloud players -- the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon Web Services LLC -- have "at least tried" some form of horizontal development in the data center, he says.
 
Intel invested $6.5 million in Big Switch's Series B funding, bringing Big Switch's total funding to more than US$45 million. The Series B round itself was announced in October and included investors Redpoint Ventures and Goldman Sachs & Co. (See Big Switch Raises $25M for OpenFlow Push.)
 
It's not hard to see why Intel is interested. Big Switch is developing applications that take advantage of the OpenFlow protocol, which theoretically could replace the routing or switching software that's in a box from a company like Cisco.
 
That would be a major step toward producing white-box switches. Another major piece required would be the Ethernet switching chip itself. Broadcom Corp. leads that market, but Intel, with the 2011 acquisition of Fulcrum Microsystems, is trying hard to strengthen its footing there.
 
An ecosystem around white boxes is starting to emerge. Pica8 Inc. recently came out with its reference design for such a switch. So did Intel, for that matter: a design called Seacliff Trail that was announced in September. (See Buying Into the New Cisco.)
 
If you needed any more evidence that white-box switching is working up a head of steam, some big data-center owners (Google, for instance) and large financial institutions are proclaiming their interest in the concept. They're uniting their voices into the Open Networking Users Group (ONUG), which is convening Feb. 13 in Boston. (Note: Google isn't part of ONUG.)
 
"You will see some of the largest customers in the world demanding some very specific mandates, one of which is standardization, which implies white boxes," says Jason Matlof, Big Switch's vice president of marketing.
 
Cisco has countered that ASICs will remain crucial to high-end systems. It's preaching a different vision of software-defined networking (SDN) based on application programming interfaces (APIs) reaching into different layers of the network -- but it's also started warming to the idea of having its switches support OpenFlow. (See Cisco Extends Its SDN & Cloud Plans and Juniper's SDN Will Build Service Chains.)
 
But getting back to the original point: It's clear Intel Capital isn't investing in Big Switch just for kicks. The idea was championed inside Intel by the Fulcrum group, after they got acquired in 2011, Matlof says.
 
Of course, Intel was familiar with Big Switch before then, as were all the major chip vendors. Appenzeller has been talking SDN with them since 2008, when he took over the OpenFlow project at Stanford University.
 

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