Should Microsoft Buy Big Switch?


Network virtualization is getting more press than ever.  The current trend seems to be pitting the traditional networking companies, like Cisco and Juniper, against the upstarts in the server virtualization companies, like VMware and OpenStack.  To hear the press and analysts talk about it makes one think that these companies represent all there is in the industry.

Whither Microsoft?

One company that seems to have been left out of the conversation is Microsoft.  The stalwarts of Redmond have been turning heads with their rapid pace of innovation to reach parity with VMware’s offerings.  However, when the conversation turns to networking Microsoft is usually left out in the cold.  That’s because their efforts at networking in the past have been…problematic.  They are very service oriented and care little for the world outside their comfortable servers.  That won’t last forever.  VMware will be able to easily shift the conversation away from feature parity with Hyper-V and concentrate on all the networking expertise that it has now that is missing in the competitor.

Microsoft can fix that problem with a small investment.  If you can innovate by building it, you need to buy it.  Microsoft has the cash to buy several startups, even after sinking a load of it into Nokia.  But which SDN-focused company makes the most sense for Microsoft?  I spent a lot of time thinking about this very question and the answer became clear for me:  Microsoft needs to buy Big Switch Networks.

A Window On The Future

Microsoft needs SDN expertise.  They have no current networking experience outside of creating DHCP and DNS services on their platforms.  I mean, did anyone ever use their Network Access Protocol solution as a NAC option?  Microsoft has traditionally created bare bones network constructs to please their server customers.  They think networking is a resource outside their domain, which coincidentally is just how their competitors used to look at it as well.  At least until Martin Casado changed their minds.

Big Switch is a perfect fit for Microsoft.  They have the chops to talk OpenFlow.  Their recent shift away from overlays to software on bare metal would play well as a marketing point against VMware and their “overlays are the best way” message.  They could also help Microsoft do more development on NV-GRE, the also ran to VxLAN.  Ivan Pepelnjak (@IOSHints) was pretty impressed with NV-GRE last December, but it’s dropped of the radar in the wake of VMware embracing VxLAN in NSX.  I think having a bit more development work from the minds at Big Switch would put it back into the minds of some smaller network virtualization companies looking to support something other than the de facto standard.  I know that Big Switch has moved away from the overlay model, but if NV-GRE can easily be adapted to the work Big Switch was doing a few months ago, it would be a great additional offering to the idea of running everything in an SDN-enabled switch OS.

Microsoft will also benefit from the pile of SDN applications that Big Switch has rumored to be sitting around and festering for lack of attention.  Applications like network taps sell Big Switch products now.  With NSX introducing the ideas of integrated load balancers and firewalls into the base product, Big Switch is going to be hard pressed to charge extra for them.  Instead, they’re going to have to go out on a limb and finish developing them past the alpha stage and hope that they are enough to sell more product and recoup the development costs.  With the deep pockets in Redmond, finishing those applications would be a drop in the bucket if it means that the new product can compete directly on an even field with VMware.

Building A Bigger Switch

Big Switch gains in this partnership also.  They get to take some pressure of their overworked development team.  It can’t be easy switching horses in mid-stream, especially when it involves changing your entire outlook on how SDN should be done.  Adding a few dozen more people to the project will allow you to branch out and investigate how integrating software into your ideas could be done.  Big Switch has already done a great job developing Project Floodlight.  Why not let some big brains chew on other ideas in the same vein for a while.

Big Switch could also use the stability of working for an established company.  They have a pretty big target on their backs now that everyone is developing an SDN strategy.  Writing an OS for bare metal switches is going to bring them into contention with Cumulus Networks.  Why not let an OS vendor do some of the heavy lifting?  It would also allow Microsoft’s well established partner program to offer incentives to partners that want to sell white label switches with software from Big Switch to get into networking much more cheaply than before.  Think about federal or educational discounts that Microsoft already gives to customers.  Do you think they’d be excited to see the same kind of consideration when it comes to networking hardware?

Tom’s Take

Little fish either get eaten by bigger ones or they have to be agile enough to avoid being snapped up.  The smartest little fish in the ocean may be the remora.  It survives by attaching itself to a bigger fish and providing a benefit for them both.  The remora gets the protection of not being eaten while also not taking too much from the host.  Microsoft would do well to setup some kind of similar arrangement with Big Switch.  They could fund future development into NV-GRE compatible options, or they just by the company outright.  Both parties get something out of the deal: Microsoft gets the SDN component they need.  Big Switch gets a backer with so much industry clout that they can no longer be dismissed.

7 thoughts on “Should Microsoft Buy Big Switch?

    • Eh, it’s Friday. I’ll bite.

      So, you’re telling me that the solution that Microsoft has come up with is vastly superior to everything on the market. I took a look at the above video and a lot of other documentation (that’s what we analysts do). You know what I saw? A virtual overlay network. Where have I heard that one before? Oh yes. From VMware.

      VMware NSX has market share right now even in beta trials. People are talking about how they’re going to integrate with it. It’s based on Martin Casado’s work with OpenFlow at Nicira. That means it’s at least somewhat geared toward interoperability. VxLAN appears to have won the format battle over NVGRE for the near term. People are falling all over themselves to build in support for VxLAN decap. Other than Cisco, I can’t find anyone that is trying to decap NVGRE.

      Microsoft’s site talks quite a bit about how the overlay functions. They also talk a lot about integrating with Cisco’s ACI. That’s where the payoff comes for them. Ask any networking engineer, architect, or CIO to name the two biggest players in SDN right now. If the answers aren’t NSX and ACI I would be shocked. The more hooked in people might give OpenFlow/OpenDaylight in the #3 position. Microsoft has to integrate with a bigger player to gain any traction in the market.

      Hyper-V is just like Betamax. It’s a very good (if not superior) platform that very few people are using. Why? Because the other guys have better marketing. They are looking at the problem from a different perspective. They aren’t server people building a virtualization platform that has networking parts. They are virtualization people building a networking platform that just happens to virtualize servers too. Without integrating with ACI, very few people are going to take a hard look at the overlay in Hyper-V. Sure, they’ll run it if they are a 100% MS shop. But, if there are any other hypervisors, like KVM or VMware, the advantages of the Hyper-V solution become very murky. Note this isn’t just a Microsoft issue, it’s a VMware issue too.

      Buying Big Switch would have given them an integration point further down the stack. They wouldn’t have to partner with Cisco to gain insight below the hypervisor and the overlay network it creates. Big Switch has the talent to build down past the visibility event horizon that VMware and Microsoft have created for server admins doing networking. Maybe MS has some smart people. Maybe NVGRE will win out in the end. If MS doesn’t allow people to start finding ways to integrate it with platforms like OpenDaylight or open up the SDN solution to integrate across platforms, they’re going to find that people will choose VMware for full stack integration across all systems. That’s an advantage that can’t be countered by giving away the hypervisor for nothing to you existing customers.

      Take that for what it’s worth. It’s just my analysis.

        • Tommy, it’s entirely possible that Mr Nerd is in fact totally wrong in his analysis, and you clearly believe that to be the case. Rather than the trolling you’re currently doing, it would be nice to actually hear your perspective so that we can hear a different viewpoint. That way there’s something to discuss and we might all learn something.

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