Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches
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With commercial OpenFlow switches still hard to find, Big Switch Networks is trying to jump-start the OpenFlow switch market with Switch Light, an open source network operating system for "thin" switches.
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Based on the open source Indigo OpenFlow agent, Switch Light will run on so-called "white box" switches from original design manufacturers (ODMs) like Quanta QCT and Accton Technology Corp. These Taiwanese manufacturers specialize in building switches based on reference architectures from their customers.
Since Switch Light has an integrated data plane abstraction with drviers for different switching platforms, it can also serve as a Linux-based virtual switch, allowing an OpenFlow controller to manage both physical and virtual network infrastructure. Switch Light will allow networking pros to run an OpenFlow switch much like server admins run servers: They'll be able to boot up, configure and manage these switches via an OpenFlow controller rather than logging into each device individually.
Big Switch Vice President of Marketing Jason Matlof said the release isn't intended to make Big Switch a switching vendor or to compete with the likes of a Cisco Nexus . Instead, the goal is to get OpenFlow switches into the hands of users more quickly and get past the foot-dragging of hardware vendors.
"We have fairly large deployments with commercial [switch] vendors, but deployment of OpenFlow is hamstrung. Cisco's OpenFlow support is just vaporware, and it's a conflict of interest for them to adopt this in earnest. HP, Dell, Brocade, Arista and others are more aggressive with OpenFlow support, but that adoption suffers from feature bloat. The release cycles for their switches can take six to 12 months and longer. We just can't get the velocity that we need," Matlof said.
Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, agrees. "The supply chain that needs to support the technology, from the merchant silicon manufacturers to the OEMs through to the customers hasn't developed as fast as OpenFlow's proponents would have hoped."
Once users get their hands on OpenFlow switches, they could begin seeing the benefits of software-defined networking (SDN) swiftly.
"We keep hearing about Capex savings [with OpenFlow]," said Brent Salisbury, network architect at the University of Kentucky. "I think that's the major disruption to the market, the potential of reducing the cost of hardware. By making this available through white box switches, I think the cost of hardware could go down."
Of course, enterprises won't dump Cisco and Juniper from their networks just because white box switches are cheaper. "If white box was really going to destroy the networking industry, why do we still buy Dell servers and HP servers?" Salisbury said.
Access to Switch Light switches will encourage experimentation with OpenFlow and SDN, which will help networking pros get familiar with the technology and find new use cases for it. Switch Light "breaks down barriers, and some of the use cases will start showing up," Salisbury said. "That's what we're waiting for. The industry wants brave customers to deploy OpenFlow. Well, to do that, we need commercial products. From that perspective, this is pretty huge."
As an open source project, Switch Light will be free to everyone, but Big Switch will offer commercial software support of the technology to any customer of its OpenFlow controller and applications.
Switch Light has hardware operational features, including a zero-touch loader, event manager and a device environment manager (for managing power units, fans and other hardware systems). It also has data plane abstractions with specific drivers that will enable the software to operate on switch hardware and in hypervisors. Today it has drivers for physical switches based on Broadcom's Trident+ network chips and virtual switches operated within the KVM hypervisor. Drivers for Xen hypervisors and Intel-Fulcrum chips are in the pipeline.
Big Switch even has a prototype for VMware hypervisors, "but the challenge there is that it's very proprietary. They've given the keys of the kingdom to a few vendors to integrate, but I think there'll be less of that going forward," Matlof said.
Extreme Networks has also committed to building switches for Switch Light with Broadcom silicon that will run Switch Light. Dubbed "Slalom," these OpenFlow switches will receive full customer support from Extreme. The first switch will ship later this year in a 48-port Gigabit Ethernet configuration with 10 GbE uplinks.
"We will go into real customer environments with an end-to-end solution that's supportable and maintainable," said David Ginsburg, chief marketing officer at Extreme. "Our role in this is really completing some of the critical pieces of the puzzle in making these lightweight SDN switch deployments a reality."
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