10 software-defined networking startups to watch

Software Defined Networking (SDN) startups are being snatched up, one by one, by incumbent networking vendors who fear turning into dinosaurs as the software-defined data center evolves from Utopian fever dream to reality. Nicira, Vyatta, Cariden and Contrail have already been acquired by VMware, Brocade, Cisco and Juniper, respectively.

Meanwhile, mainstream vendors such as IBM and HP have rolled out their own SDN products.

According to IDC, the SDN market will reach $3.7 billion by 2016. SDN products may still be immature, but there is a ton of forward momentum. Here are nine startups (and an important new standards body) that intend to push SDN into the mainstream.

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[ 9 Hot Network Virtualization, SDN and Data Center Startups ]

[ Software-Defined Networking Explained ]

1. Affirmed Networks

What they do: Provide virtualized subscriber and content management tools for mobile operators.

Headquarters: Acton, Mass.

CEO: Hassan Ahmed, who was previously the CEO of Sonus.

Founded: 2010

Funding: $103 million in total funding, including a $51 million Series C that closed in June. Investors include Bessemer Venture Partners, KCK Group, Matrix Partners, Charles River Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, T-Venture, and Vodafone Ventures.

Why they're on this list: Affirmed Networks brings the SDN concept, which is typically confined to enterprise or cloud data centers, to mobile networks. Mobile users expect a lot from the mobile Internet these days. They want to stream video content, conduct mobile commerce, and engage with each other through social media. In other words, pretty much anything you can do on a PC over a broadband connection you also want to be able to do from a mobile device. The trouble is that even 4G networks aren't entirely up to the task.

Affirmed Networks' software-based virtualization solution transforms mobile networks from legacy access architectures to intelligent, virtualized networks, which dramatically shifts the operators' economics and enables them to deliver the services their customers demand at broadband-like speeds.

The Affirmed solution is designed to overcome major challenges operators face in economically scaling their networks to meet subscriber usage and quality of experience demands, as well as to intelligently treat multiple traffic streams -- sometimes from the same subscriber -- to appropriately ensure the best "Quality of Experience." This means that operators may tailor services individually and create adaptable charging profiles for each user.

Competitive Landscape: I haven't found any head-to-head competitors (chime in below in the comments field if you know of any), but Affirmed hopes to displace such incumbents as Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, Ericsson, Cisco, and Huawei.

2. Big Switch Networks

What they do: Develop OpenFlow-based SDN switches, controllers and monitoring tools.

Headquarters: Palo Alto, Calif.

CEO: Guido Appenzeller, who was previously a Consulting Assistant Professor at Stanford University and head of the Clean Slate Lab, where he led the research team that developed the OpenFlow v1.0 standard and the reference switch and controller implementations. Before that, he was CTO of Voltage Security.

Founded: 2010

Funding: More than $45 million. The most recent investment was a $6.5 million Series-B follow-on from Intel capital, an investment that closed in February. Previous backers include Goldman Sachs, Redpoint Ventures and Khosla Ventures.

Why they're on this list: According to Big Switch, the networking industry has been stuck in the mainframe era, wedded to vertically integrated hardware and software systems that are built upon proprietary architectures and are substantially the same as they were decades ago. These legacy network architectures create operational fragility, drive excessively long provisioning times and result in unnecessarily high operational costs.

Big Switch argues that the best replacement for all of this is OpenFlow-based software abstraction layer between the network control plane and underlying data forwarding plane, including both physical and virtual devices. An open platform with centralized software provisioning delivers improvements in network agility through programmability and automation, while substantially reducing the costs of network operations. By using an industry standard data plane abstraction protocol like OpenFlow, data center operators are now free to use any type and brand of data plane device, since all the underlying network hardware is addressable through a common abstraction protocol.

OpenFlow facilitates the use of bare-metal switches and eliminates traditional vendor lock-in, giving end users freedom of choice in networking similar to what they've recently gained in other areas of IT infrastructure, such as servers.

In November 2012, Big Switch's started shipping its first products: an OpenFlow-based controller, a unified network-monitoring application, and an SDN network-virtualization switch.

Competitive Landscape: They will compete against VMware (Nicira acquisition), Brocade (Vyatta acquisition), Midokura, Embrane and PLUMgrid.

3. Embrane

What they do: Deliver Layer 3-7 SDN services to enterprises and service providers.

Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif.

CEO: Dante Malagrino, who previously spent 10+ years at Cisco, where he was part of the team that built the catalyst 6500 family of switches and later was a founding member of Andiamo, a Cisco storage networking spinoff.

Founded: 2009

Funding: $27 million in total funding ($9 million series A; $18 million series B) from New Enterprise Associates, Lightspeed Venture Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners.

Why they're on this list: Enterprise networks are currently controlled by internal networking teams, but once they are virtualized, the systems engineers start to lobby for control. Networking teams believe the intelligence needs to remain within the network core (as it does today), while systems teams believe we should move the intelligence (routing tables, firewalls, etc.) to the edge, closely tying them to the hypervisor.

Embrane tackles this conflict with solutions that allow for the agility expected form virtualized environments, but which also allow networking intelligence to stay within the network core, since these teams already have the expertise to manage it all. The company's flagship product, heleos, is a multi-service, distributed software platform for powering software-defined network services, including server load balancers, firewalls, VPN termination and SSL offload.

Customers include PEER1 Hosting, SunGard, Long View Systems, NaviSite and Ryan Labs Asset Management.

Competitive Landscape: When looking at competitors, you have to start with the gorilla in the room: Cisco. Others include VMware (through the Nicira acquisition), Brocade (Vyatta acquisition) and other startups, including Midokura, Big Switch, PLUMgrid and Plexxi.

4. Jeda Networks

What they do: Provide SDN storage (SDSN) technology.

Headquarters: Newport Beach, Calif.

CEO: Stuart Berman. Prior to Jeda Networks, he was the SVP and CTO of Emulex.

Founded: 2010

Funding: Jeda is funded by US Venture Partners and Miramar Venture Partners. Amounts have not been disclosed.

Why they're on this list: The widespread adoption of virtualization has the unintended consequence of challenging storage networks to the point where traditional products and architectures are having trouble keeping up.

Jeda Networks intends to solve this problem by having software perform the storage tasks of traditional storage hardware, linking together storage equipment and the servers and endpoints that access data on those systems. Jeda's Fabric Network Software-based controller manages standard 10GB Ethernet switches, rather than switches with specialized storage hardware/firmware, thus eliminating the need for additional hardware to accommodate the SAN. In addition, this enables SAN capabilities in mixed-switch vendor environments.

End users are now able to select a switch vendor based on extended Ethernet capabilities, rather than being stuck with the vendor and switch that supports your particular SAN.

Competitive Landscape: The most direct competitors are Brocade and Cisco. According to Jeda, both vendors sell Fibre Channel and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) switches and both charge huge premiums for their add-on SAN functionality. Both vendors also take a hardware-centric approach to storage networks and even go so far as to embed specialized hardware and firmware in their SAN-capable switches.

5. Metacloud

What they do: Develop on-premises, managed private cloud solutions built on OpenStack.

Headquarters: Pasadena, Calif.

CEO and President: Sean Lynch, who formerly served as SVP of technology operations at Ticketmaster Entertainment, is CEO, while Steve Curry, who was previously the manager of global storage operations at Yahoo, serves as President.

Founded: 2011

Funding: Metacloud closed a $10 million Series A round in June. The round was led by canaan Ventures and joined by existing seed investors Storm Ventures and Jerry Yang's (former Yahoo co-founder) AME Cloud Ventures. Metacloud is not disclosing the amount of the seed round raised from Storm and AME.

Why they're on this list: Public and private cloud solutions each come with their own pros and cons. The public cloud becomes prohibitively expensive at scale and doesn't utilize on-premises hardware, while the private cloud demands intensive resources and knowledge just to maintain and manage it.

Metacloud intends to deliver only the pros, offering solutions that provide the convenient and instantly-updated public cloud experience, along with the flexibility, security, and cost effectiveness of the private cloud -- all while protecting legacy data center infrastructure investments. Sounds like a tall order, but this is how certain SDN vendors, such as Metacloud and PLUMgrid, are differentiating themselves from vendors that encourage forklift upgrades.

Metacloud delivers an enhanced version of OpenStack that runs on a customer's existing, on-premises data center hardware, regardless of manufacturer. Metacloud also remotely manages and supports the resulting cloud. They charge a per-socket subscription fee for this service, of course, which they argue ends up costing a fraction of the price of competing solutions.

Basically, this is an OpenStack-as-a-Service offering. Tableau Software is an early named customer.

Competitive Landscape: Metacloud will compete against everyone from VMware to other OpenStack vendors to SDN vendors like PLUMgrid.

6. Midokura

What they do: Provide an SDN platform that virtualizes networking services.

Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.

CEO: Dan Mihai Dumitriu, who was previously a technical lead at Amazon, where he was responsible for building key components for their service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Founded: 2010

Funding: $22 million to date. Their latest round, a $17.3 million Series A, was secured in April 2013. The round was led by Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), a Japanese public-private partnership. Other investors who participated included NTT Investment Partners, L.P., and NEC Group's Venture Fund: Innovative Ventures Fund Investment L.P.

Why they're on this list: As any networking engineer can tell you, cloud networks are difficult to provision and scale, and adding new network services is a cumbersome, manual task, since adding services is so hard to automate. Moreover, current cloud networking models tend to be insecure and aren't terribly resilient.

Midokura's flagship product, MidoNet, is an SDN solution that uncouples an organization's cloud from its network hardware, creating an intelligent software abstraction layer between end hosts and the physical network. This abstraction layer allows the network to scale in a linear manner.

The abstraction layer can tie into platforms like OpenStack and CloudStack, so services can be automatically provisioned. Finally, since MidoNet doesn't rely on VLANs for network isolation, it isn't bound by the 4096 individual VLAN limit.

Competitive Landscape: Midokura will compete against Nicira (acquired by VMware), Vyatta (acquired by Brocade), Big Switch Networks and most other startups in this roundup.

7. Pertino

What they do: Provide cloud- and SDN-based secure networking services.

Headquarters: Los Gatos, Calif.

CEO: Craig Elliott. Prior to Pertino, Elliott was the CEO of Packeteer, taking the company from three people to over 200 before going public with a market valuation of over $2 billion.

Founded: 2011

Funding: $28.85 million. Their most recent round, a Series B, garnered $20 million from Jafco Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and private investors.

Why they're on this list: Businesses are struggling to keep up with outsourcing, globalization and the increasing prevalence of mobile workers. All of these employees (as well as partners and customers) demand reliable access to corporate systems. This is easier said than done. Traditional wide-area networks (WAN) are too complex, expensive, and limiting to effectively handle emerging business requirements driven by the cloud and mobility, especially for resource-constrained SMBs.

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