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Five SDN starter kit options you should know

SDN starter kits are designed to help enterprises evaluate the technology before they begin transitioning their networks to the new architecture. What should you look for?

Software-defined networking forces a total change in the way networks are configured and managed. Because SDN replaces...

the conventional protocols used over the past several decades, network managers must learn how to adapt to this new technology.

To ease the transition, network equipment vendors -- from very small startups to large established vendors -- have released starter kits. These SDN starter kit options provide customers with a low-risk way to demonstrate SDN concepts to senior managers and executives as they take initial steps to transition their networks.

SDN centralizes network configuration and control in one or more server-based controller software modules. The controller communicates with switches throughout the network, directing each individual data flow via the optimal route between source and destination. The Open Network Foundation's OpenFlow protocol specification defines communications between controller and switch.

Several vendors supply software only and rely on commodity switches based on the Open Compute Foundation's Open Switch specification. These switches, known as bare-metal switches, promise to greatly reduce the cost of network infrastructure. Switch operating software designed to the Open Switch specification can run on any compatible switch.

SDN starter kits range from very inexpensive software-only packages to others that include switch hardware. Buyers choosing software-only kits can then select switches from among the commodity switch manufacturers. A kit buyer can purchase the software and then choose inexpensive, low-capacity switches to use while gaining experience with the technology. Later, the same software can be integrated with higher-capacity bare-metal switches as the network is upgraded to SDN control. Among the kits available:

NEC ProgrammableFlow

With its $3,000 entry price, NEC offers a low-cost option for customers investigating SDN. Licensing for its PF68000 ProgrammableFlow Controller is based on network capacity -- with the initial license sufficient to manage a lab or departmental network. The controller is compatible with both NEC switches and Dell S-Series switches. The entry license price gives customers a full-fledged product; it's not a stripped-down release. As experience with SDN grows, the initial licensed capacity can be increased to support the entire network.

Additionally, NEC offers a full suite of SDN products along with the ProgrammableFlow Controller. Among them is the UNIVERGE PF6800 Network Coordinator, which coordinates network operations across controllers within a large data center or between geographically separated data centers. This module allows users to multiply the number of switches, virtual tenant networks, VLANs and flows that can be supported within a large worldwide network.


Pica8's SDN Starter Kit includes the OpenFlow 1.4-compliant PicOS open switch operating system, RYU SDN controller, Network Tap application and Wireshark protocol analyzer, all for a price below $5,000. Open switch-compliant hardware is not included, enabling customers to select switches with the capacity and interfaces to meet their needs.

Pica8 offers extensive documentation to help kit buyers familiarize themselves with SDN concepts. The Pica8 website includes an OpenFlow tutorial and detailed documentation for PicOS and Open vSwitch. After the initial experimentation, customers can convert their operational networks to SDN management.

Big Switch Networks

Big Switch offers two ways to become familiar with SDN and Big Switch products. Prospective customers can log in to Big Switch Labs and access both the Big Tap Monitoring Fabric and the Big Cloud Fabric platform. The lab offers access to virtualized instances of released software; it is not a simulation, which means lab users can be assured that the network behavior they saw in the lab will match what occurs when the software is installed on-site.

Big Tap Monitoring Fabric and Big Cloud Fabric starter kits consist of all of the components required to configure and operate a small network. The kits include SDN controller software, Big Switch's Switch Light network operating system and Switch Light vSwitch, Ethernet switch hardware, cables and support licenses.

Tallac Networks

Tallac Networks applies SDN technology to support managed service providers as they deliver networking as a service to businesses. Services are delivered via cloud-managed Wi-Fi access points (APs), enabling remote, multi-tenant networks to be managed from a single screen. Separation between individual tenant networks is maintained via virtual network overlays.

Tallac's SDN Starter Kit consists of two OpenFlow-enabled enterprise-class dual-radio 802.11ac APs and Tallac's cloud resident OpenDaylight controller. Any of the other available open source controllers can also be used. Applications manage the tenant networks via the controller's northbound interface, enabling managers to maintain separate policies for each tenant. The kit also includes a full set of documentation, including training labs, software and tutorials explaining how to develop and test an SDN application.


SDN is just one component of Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure. ACI manages the entire application environment, including virtual machine management, network configuration and management, application execution, and performance and security policies.

Cisco's ACI Simulator offers one way for customers to become familiar with ACI's features and capabilities. The Simulator includes full-featured APIC controller software and a simulated infrastructure of leaf and spine switches. Using the simulator, customers can experiment with features and test APIs by integrating third-party applications. Two hardware and software starter kits are also available. The minimum configuration ACI lab kit and production starter kits are priced at $115,000 and $175,000 respectively.

Other ways to gain SDN experience

In addition to the use of starter kits, network managers can gain SDN experience via free vendor downloads and websites. For example, Brocade recently made its Vyatta version of the OpenDaylight controller available for free download, which includes a one-year license to manage up to a five-node network and 60 days of support. Juniper Networks' OpenContrail website enables customers to log in and test out its Contrail SDN platform at no cost.

As experience with SDN increases and the architecture becomes the standard way to manage large networks, the need for starter kits and other familiarization methods will disappear. Currently, with interest in SDN high but experience limited, customers may appreciate an opportunity to sample the technology before making a large purchase and attempting a complete network transition from long-used management practices.

About the author:
David B. Jacobs of The Jacobs Group has more than 20 years of networking industry experience. He has managed leading-edge software development projects and consulted to Fortune 500 companies as well as software startups.

Next Steps

Questions to ask your SDN vendor

Understanding the basics of SDN

Pinpointing your operational needs

This was last published in January 2015

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