Pica8 OpenFlow starter kit could make SDN for monitoring easy to try

Pica8's OpenFlow starter kit ships with a bare-metal switch, controller and network tap application for testing SDN's monitoring use case.

SDN software vendor Pica8 Inc. is offering an OpenFlow starter kit designed to let engineers experiment with a bare-metal switch as a network tap.

Pica8 is a Palo Alto, Calif.-based SDN startup that sells software and support designed for SDN networks built on bare-metal switches. The Pica8 OpenFlow kit includes a pre-configured bare-metal switch and a software package that one can install on a Linux PC that includes an SDN controller, a network tap application and the open source intrusion detection technology Snort. Pica8 lists the kit at $8,895.

With the starter kit, engineers can connect the Pica8 switch to an existing network, configure the network to send traffic through the switch, and then use the controller and tap application to monitor traffic as it passes through the device. The kit allows engineers to learn about SDN and see the value in using OpenFlow for network monitoring. SDN startup Big Switch Networks has also pushed network monitoring as an early SDN use case.

"You can attach [the switch] to your existing network, and from that physical port connectivity, we can identify and reprogram the switch to capture traffic. Let's say you want to probe what's going on with VLAN 2. We can use the controller to catch VLAN 2 traffic and send it to the PC with the controller and Snort to see what's going on," said Steve Garrison, Pica8's vice president of marketing.

Garrison says the Pica8 OpenFlow starter kit is aimed at "crossing the chasm" between early adopters and mainstream enterprises, and expanding the SDN footprint will be a matter of adding more bare-metal switches and network applications. It's is a good way to get the company's technology package into the hands of engineers, but converting those kits into larger sales won't be easy.

Very few network engineers are ready to adopt a large-scale SDN project today, but starting small with a starter kit might appeal to them, said Chris Becerra, president of Terrapin Systems, a Pica8 channel partner with a large customer base of Silicon Valley companies.

"[Network engineers] want to be able to prove … viability of the technology and the products [in the lab]," Becerra said. "We're talking to a lot of our customers who are midsize to large enterprise accounts, large software or hardware companies. These guys are all very intrigued by SDN solutions and open networking, mostly because they'll be able to self-provision and program the network rather than be locked in. They see the value of the technology. It's just a question of when.

Many early adopters already have bare-metal switches with Pica8 software in their labs because the company was giving them away in an effort to seed the market, said Stu Miniman, analyst for the Wikibon Project. This new starter kit extends that strategy by packaging hardware and software aimed at a specific network monitoring use case, but Miniman says only a narrow group of engineers are ready to go beyond testing the technology.

"What part of the market is really going to buy this?" he said. "If I'm a [mainstream engineer], I make my switch purchases every five years. I'm probably not going to buy some white-box switches and then go and figure them out for myself. The overhead is tough. You're got to be at the level of buying hundreds of switches at a time before you make the decision to go white box. The hyperscale guys buy so much volume that they will spend time [managing bare-metal switches] to save money."

Becerra said his customers are very interested in bare-metal switches. "For us on the West Coast, white-box switches resonate with high-tech companies. They recognize that switches are eventually going to look just like servers.

Terrapin Systems hasn't actually sold any SDN solutions yet, Becerra admitted, but his company is committed to developing an SDN technology practice.

"We look at open networking and SDN as being a big part of our business. It just isn't there yet. I think we'll have a handful of wins in 2014. I think in late 2014 or 2015 we'll start to see some decent-sized production deployments," he said.

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