Big Switch open-sources Floodlight, an OpenFlow controller

Guido Appenzeller (left) and Kyle Forster of Big Switch

Big Switch Networks, a startup using the OpenFlow protocol to help companies build software-defined networks, has open-sourced its controller software, dubbed Floodlight. The company, which is one of several startups trying to solve networking issues that arise from virtualization and webscale systems, said on Wednesday that it would release the source code for the controller it developed on its website and will focus on developing an ecosystem of applications around the Floodlight code.

The idea of software-defined networks gained ground in 2011 with companies such as Big Switch, Nicira, Embrane, Juniper and others promoting the concept of adding flexibility and agility to networks by making them programmable. Companies such as Juniper offer a proprietary flavor of this, while others promote the use of the open-source OpenFlow protocol. At its heart OpenFlow takes the intelligence required to move packets out of the switch, which actually moves the packets, and then puts them on commodity hardware.

That is all it does. So other companies are building controller software that gives the commodity server the intelligence to move packets around, while others are building firewalls, load balancers and other network applications that work in a software-defined environment. Big Switch wants to be one of those application companies, but first it wanted to put a controller out there so programmers could play with it and make it better. Then they could build applications on top of it. Kyle Forster, a co-founder at Big Switch, said in an interview, “Since networking is dominated by one big company we think it’s going to take a whole ecosystem to make a change.”

He likens the Floodlight controller to the MySQL code and says that’s what he hopes Big Switch can promote through its efforts and through its partners’ efforts — a solid core chunk of code that other companies can add functionality to. Floodlight is offered under the Apache 2.0 license used by other fast-growing projects such as Hadoop and OpenStack. With this news and Embrane’s release of its heleos software late last year, it looks like network engineers will have plenty to play with over the coming months. Perhaps this year is when software-defined networks will become real.