This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala's blog.

Big Switch stole many of the networking headlines this week when it announced its Switch Light software release. Switch Light, based on the open source technology Indigo, can be used on commodity white box switches to create an OpenFlow-based switch than can be used as part of a software defined network implementation. One of the elements of the press release that I felt flew under the radar, was that Extreme Networks would be the only “mainstream” network vendor that was committing to this reference architecture for a rack switch.

Extreme will later this year introduce its Slalom switch, which will be an optimized SDN switch running the thin virtual network software. Slalom will complement Extreme’s Open Fabric portfolio that has a number of SDN-capable switches in both stackable and chassis-based forms. Slalom will be a 48-port Gig-E Ethernet switch that will be based on a “white box” solution.

I was both surprised and pleased to see Extreme jump on board the Big Switch release wagon. I was surprised because there’s a large part of the media, financial services community, and the networking industry contending that the rise of SDNs will be the death knell of routers and switches as we know it. SDNs are threatening to kill off the mainstream vendors and give rise to a crop of new vendors. So, if this is the case, why would Extreme support such an initiative? Because, as I’ve said so many times, it’s not true. I was pleased to see Extreme recognize this and challenge the perceived threat.

I do believe SDNs will have an impact on the network, but the network industry will evolve along two paths. One of them will be to build a more flexible, agile network based on products like Slalom. These will be used as rack switches for big financial services firms, Web and social media companies and similar organizations. These organizations are, not coincidentally, the ones that first adopted commodity rack servers during the rise of virtualization. To this market, Extreme can bring a number of things. First, portfolio breadth is still needed. It’s not like the entire network will be built on white boxes. Many of these organizations are using products like Extreme’s BDX8 Ethernet switch, which is a monster of a switch. Also, I don’t think you can underestimate how important it is to have actual knowledge of how the network operates. A compute-oriented company may know how to build a basic network box, but building a resilient, reliable network is a much different challenge. Also, Extreme has a long history of network programmability – one of the core tenets of SDNs. Although programmability has recently become a major trend, Extreme’s XOS operating system has been a programmable operating system since the early 2000s.

Slalom shouldn’t be thought of as a threat to Extreme. Rather, it’s a great complement to the XOS-based existing product lines. The combined product line gives Extreme’s customers traditional switches, hybrid mode switches to migrate to an SDN, as well as the new lightweight SDN-only leaf switches.

The other path for network vendors is to continue to build switches and fabrics that can simplify and automate network functions. More traditional enterprises will prefer tried-and-true networking. Eventually, mainstream companies may choose to deploy an SDN, but we’re years away from that. Traditional switches are not going away and vendors need to continue to push innovation.

Kudos to Extreme for not fearing the concept of the white box switch. Instead, the company embraced it and came to market with a viable solution that can expand their foot print in data centers where the company has started to gain traction with products like the BDX8.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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