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Big Switch Networks is not even out of stealth mode and has not yet revealed its aspirations and products for software defined networks – SDNs, in modern parlance – and yet the company is nonetheless contributing to the open source efforts to build more flexible and virtual network infrastructure and hoping to build awareness ahead of its eventual launch.

The company made a splash in the SDN pool back in January when it launched Floodlight, an open source OpenFlow controller that has its roots at Stanford University. With the OpenFlow protocol, rather than rely on access-control lists inside of a switch, router, or wireless access point, you break the control plane from the forwarding plane and put the control plane back on a server (usually a hardened virtual server) where it can be updated on the fly and – more importantly in this case – can be programmatically manipulated because it is just a bunch of Java running on that server.

The effect is to make networking more malleable, because the flow tables are all back on the controller and not loaded up inside the physical hardware. Networking has been a bit inflexible, and virtualizing more thoroughly (and yet transparently) is necessary once servers and storage have both been virtualized.

Big Switch Networks logo

Big Switch Networks was founded two years ago and got a big fat juicy $13.75m infusion of Series A funding back in April 2011 from Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures; it also got angel funding from Charlie Giancarlo, former chief development officer at Cisco.

The Floodlight OpenFlow controller that Big Switch Networks created and will eventually commercialize is derived from the open source Beacon OpenFlow controller, which was created by Stanford PhD student David Erickson. But company founders Guido Appenzeller, the CEO at Big Switch Networks and a consulting professor at Stanford who was head of the Clean Slate Lab that created the OpenFlow standards, and Kyle Forster, VP of sales and marketing who was a technical assistant to Mike Volpi, general manager at Cisco Systems' router unit, wanted to do OpenFlow a little differently.

For one thing, Beacon was let loose on the intertubes under a GPL v2 license with the Stanford University FOSS License Exception v1.0. Floodlight, which is based on Beacon, is distributed under the Apache 2.0 license and is intentionally compatible with the licenses used for OpenStack, CloudStack, and Hadoop.

Floodlight code was let loose in January of this year. But more importantly, Appenzeller and Forster want to create a broader set of SDN wares to peddle to enterprises. It's the difference between the Linux kernel and the Red Hat Enterprise Linux distro, to use an apt analogy.

Mike Cohen, product manager at Big Switch Networks, tells El Reg that it is getting about 1,200 downloads per month for the Floodlight code, which isn't bad for a product from a company that is still operating in stealth mode.

The news this week is that the Floodlight controller can reach into the Quantum network-as-a-service layer in the OpenStack cloud controller, which will be part of the future "Folsom" OpenStack release and which is currently in preview with the "Essex" release.

Quantum is not a virtual switch – you need Open vSwitch from Nicira, which managed the Quantum project, or VMware's vSwitch or Cisco's Nexus 1000v – but rather an abstraction layer that virtualizes network interfaces as well as linking to services such as firewall, VPN, or intrusion detection into the cloud fabric.

Floodlight, Beacon, and other OpenFlow controllers allow for switching and routing to be changed on the fly on the front end of all this virtual networking as conditions dictate, virtual switches are in the middle, and Quantum is at the back-end, providing virtual networks (basic L2 network segments) and virtual ports and linking them to virtual NICs.

"Before this Quantum plug in, you had to write code to attach Floodlight to OpenStack," explains Cohen.

Big Switch Networks is working on other plug-ins to link Floodlight to other cloud controllers. "The goal is to attach to every cloud platform out there, particularly those that are open source," Cohen says. "CloudStack is close on our radar, and it will very likely be the next thing we work on."

Public clouds can also get plugged into the OpenFlow controller, provided the cloud vendors have OpenFlow-enabled switches and routers inside their clouds – these are now coming to market – and will give customers access to the OpenFlow APIs inside their own data centers.

Big Switch Networks is not saying when it will offer commercial SDN software, but it will probably be when it has more connectors to cloud fabrics. ®

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