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.
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?
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.