What Is the Impact of Arista Networks’ Acquisition of Big Switch Networks?

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Last week we learned that Arista Networks is acquiring Big Switch Networks (kudos to Jessica Lyons Hardcastle at SDxCentral for breaking this news), and though neither Arista nor Big Switch has made any official announcement yet, it’s not too early to consider the implications for open networking and SDN as well as for the broader industry.

To date, Big Switch has focused on making software that runs on white box data center switches from Dell EMC and Edgecore, similar to Pluribus Networks. Since Arista sells its own switching hardware, these former partners are now going to turn into competitors. Furthermore, given media reports that Arista is acquiring only certain Big Switch assets and key employees, it seems likely that Big Switch will stop providing open networking solutions and focus on vertically integrated solutions from Arista. Customers who want a truly disaggregated open networking solution, without the “lock-in” typical of a vertically integrated vendor, will want to look at other options, including Pluribus.

Big Switch offers two fundamental solutions. As noted, it is not clear whether either of these solutions will survive the acquisition:

  • Big Cloud Fabric (BCF): this solution is focused on SDN that enables the physical underlay only – the white box leaf-and-spine switches that provide the physical switching and routing of packets for east-west traffic between servers within a single data center. This solution does not provide an SDN-automated overlay (e.g., VXLAN). BCF is OpenFlow-based and requires a centralized SDN controller to program all the switches. Therefore, the leaf and spine switches must all be running the Big Switch operating system, as all switches must be compatible with the OpenFlow protocol. There are multiple challenges with this approach, including single points of failure, greenfield-only deployments and the fact that three redundant controllers must be deployed at every data center site, to name a few. As industry analyst Scott Raynovich noted in explaining the Big Switch acquisition, their “controller-based architecture started to fall out of favor.” You can read more about the challenges with a centralized controller approach in the blog Controller-based vs Controllerless-based SDN Solutions.
  • Big Monitoring Fabric (BMF): this solution provides a packet broker function for network visibility and analysis. This software does not run on the actual data center leaf-and-spine switches, nor does it do any switching or routing. To that point, BCF must run on separate hardware from BMF, as BMF and BCF cannot run on the same switch. The BMF-enabled white box switches are placed in various locations and either sit in-line or receive mirrored data from TAPS or SPAN ports on switches. This traffic is inspected by BMF in turn, and is then forwarded on to the correct analytics tool. BMF competes with Gigamon, Netscout/VSS and Ixia/Anue. According to industry sources, most of Big Switch’s revenue historically has come from BMF.

If you were considering BMF or BCF and you believe in the principles of open networking, where one OS can be swapped out for another OS on the same white box switch, or hardware from one open networking vendor can be swapped out for another vendor’s hardware, then you may want to take a look at Pluribus Networks. Open networking breaks vendor lock in and drives faster innovation because of the disaggregation of hardware and software – each can innovate at its own rate.

Pluribus Networks offers the Linux-based Netvisor® ONE OS and the Adaptive Cloud Fabric™ (ACF), which is our unique controllerless SDN implementation based on open networking principles. Key advantages of Pluribus solutions compared to Big Switch are 1) a controllerless SDN architecture, 2) use of standardized protocols instead of OpenFlow, 3) an SDN-automated underlay and overlay and 4) integrated visibility and analytics built right into our fabric. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Controllerless – what this means is that we leverage the distributed processing power of multi-core Intel CPUs, RAM/SSD memory and the packet processing ASICs contained in the white box switches themselves that have to be deployed anyway for underlay connectivity. We achieve this by taking a distributed compute approach to our implementation, so the SDN control intelligence and database are efficiently distributed into every switch in the fabric. If you deploy 30 switches, they all federate into one fabric and act as one logical programmable switch/router with underlay and overlay functionality. You can see and control the entire fabric from any switch in the fabric via CLI, REST API or our UNUM™ management platform.

Open, Standard Protocols – because Netvisor and ACF run as applications in the user space (control plane) of the switch, they do not change the standard behavior of the switch, unlike OpenFlow. The switch is still able to use standard underlay protocols such as BGP, OSPF and so on to establish any underlay topology and interoperate with switches and routers from any other vendor that also uses standard protocols (the vast majority). This means that interoperability and insertion into existing networks is a snap, and one can take a stepwise approach to migrating to open networking if desired. In fact, Pluribus software can be used to automate just the leaf/top-of-rack (TOR) layer while existing spine switches stay in place. If you’d like to see some technical examples of this you can look at some of our product demo videos on our Resources page.

SDN Automation of Underlay and Overlay – Pluribus pre-integrates underlay and overlay network automation, along with rich network monitoring and analytics, into a comprehensive solution that works right out of the box. This radically simplifies the deployment and ongoing management of underlay and overlay networks – it eliminates the need for customers to deploy and integrate separate underlay and overlay solutions.

The overlay is an incredibly powerful capability that provides a homogeneous fabric inside a single data center, across multiple data centers and into campus aggregation environments. Because all network services are defined and instantiated completely in software, the overlay delivers agility by enabling the rapid deployment of rich multi-tenant Layer 2 and Layer 3 services, including leveraging anycast gateways and supporting highly scalable multicast.  In addition, the overlay in ACF provides hierarchical network segmentation across the data, control and management planes, which delivers segmentation for both security and multi-tenancy.  The concept of underlay and overlay is covered in the blog SDN for Physical and Virtual Networks in Space- and Cost-Constrained Environments, and if you want to read more about using segmentation for security you can read about it here.

Finally, if you are looking only for underlay automation, perhaps because you prefer not to use an overlay or because you prefer to implement a compute-based solution for the overlay and have the resources to integrate the underlay and overlay yourself, then Pluribus Netvisor ONE and ACF can either perform as a set of individual high-performance switches or deliver SDN automation of the underlay only.

Integrated Visibility and Analytics – In addition to pre-integrating the underlay and overlay, Pluribus has developed a clever architectural approach to extract metadata on every TCP flow that passes through the fabric. While we support more traditional approaches like sFlow, our vFlow approach is not sampled – you get full data on every flow. This data can be fed into our Insight Analytics solution, which can store up to 2 billion flows and provides rich visualization and powerful search capabilities. With Insight Analytics, our customers are able to quickly identify performance issues and security threats like DDoS attacks and then rectify those issues quickly, leveraging the automation capabilities of the fabric to, for example, shut down a specific port fabric-wide across all switches with a single command. This flow metadata can also be exported via open APIs, including REST or IPFIX, into third-party systems. You can read more about our network monitoring capabilities here.

Can Pluribus ACF Support Packet Broker Functionality?

Perhaps you just upgraded your leaf-and-spine network within the last few years and you are not ready to do a refresh, but you do want to improve your visibility, performance and security monitoring capabilities. In this case, you might wish there was a more cost-effective fabric alternative to BMF. Good news: Pluribus also supports this capability by deploying our Adaptive Cloud Fabric in an SDN-automated packet broker fabric configuration that can be used in parallel with your existing network infrastructure.  If you are interested in this use case, then please contact us and we will provide an overview and demo.

If you would like to request a demo or contact us, please visit this link, send an email to Sales@pluribusnetworks.com or call us at +1 650 289 4717 or +1 855 438 8638 (U.S. and Canada).

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About the Author

Mike Capuano

Mike Capuano

Mike is Chief Marketing Officer of Pluribus Networks. Mike has over 20 years of marketing, product management and business development experience in the networking industry. Prior to joining Pluribus, Mike was VP of Global Marketing at Infinera, where he built a world class marketing team and helped drive revenue from $400M to over $800M. Prior to Infinera, Mike led product marketing across Cisco’s $6B service provider routing, switching and optical portfolio and launched iconic products such as the CRS and ASR routers. He has also held senior positions at Juniper Networks, Pacific Broadband and Motorola.