Big Switch Hires SDN Executive Away From Cisco

Prashant Gandhi, who worked on Cisco's ONE SDN effort, will now be a vice president with SDN startup Big Switch.

Big Switch Networks, one of the leading startups in the burgeoning software-defined network space, has scored a coup by hiring away one of the key executives in rival Cisco Systems' SDN efforts.

Big Switch on May 6 announced Prashant Gandhi is now vice president of product management, overseeing the company's Open SDN Suite, which Big Switch introduced in November 2012.

Gandhi's move is a blow to Cisco. The executive had his hands on a wide range of networking products, such as the Cisco Nexus 7000 switch. At the same time, Gandhi—who had been senior director of product management and marketing for Cisco's data center unit—was a key player in the development of Cisco's Open Network Environment (ONE), the company's SDN effort that includes the Cisco ONE Controller.

Gandhi also was instrumental in the development of Cisco's Nexus 1000V virtual switch and VXLAN-based network virtualization efforts and the company's SDN and cloud network product and go-to-market strategies.

"Prashant is supremely qualified, given his extensive data center experience in both physical and virtual networking, as well as a deep productization and go-to-market expertise," Guido Appenzeller, Big Switch co-founder and CEO, said in a statement. "We are excited to have him on board as we accelerate commercialization of Big Switch products and technologies."

SDN promises to create more flexible, scalable and programmable networks by removing network intelligence from complex and expensive physical switches and routers and putting it onto software-based controllers. As enterprises and service providers have embraced virtualization in servers and storage, traditional networks were seen as bottlenecks in creating more automated, dynamic and scalable data centers. The hope is that SDNs and network-function virtualization (NFV) changes all that.

The SDN field has become a highly competitive one over the past few years. Established vendors like Cisco, Juniper Networks and Hewlett-Packard are bringing together their SDN strategies, while a range of startups—including Big Switch—are looking to establish themselves in the space. At the same time, data center stalwarts like Dell, VMware and Oracle are looking to bring SDN capabilities to their data center solution offerings, either through in-house development or acquisitions.

Big Switch is seen as an increasingly important player in the market. The company's Open SDN Suite includes the Big Network Controller platform, Big Tap network monitoring tool and Big Virtual Switch, a network virtualization application. Big Switch is a strong proponent of the OpenFlow controller protocol, a technology that Cisco has not fully embraced.

The company has raised more than $45 million, including a $6.5 million investment by giant chip maker Intel.

Gandhi had been with Cisco before leaving to help found and lead Rohati Systems. He returned to Cisco in 2009 when the networking vendor bought Rohati.

"Since the successful completion of the integration of Rohati technologies within Cisco's Data Center Group, I have been searching for a unique opportunity in the rapidly forming software-defined networking market," he said in a statement. "Big Switch Networks is the leader in SDN with the best team, the best technology and the best customer traction, so the choice was clear. Customers are very eager to bring commercial-grade SDN solutions into their networks, and I look forward to helping this market move quickly to maturity."

Gandhi's departure is not the first time an SDN executive has left for another company. In October 2012, David Meyer, a 15-year Cisco veteran who was focusing on SDN and OpenFlow, left the company to become chief technology officer and chief scientist at Brocade. Around the same time, Tom Black, a vice president dealing with Cisco's ONE effort, reportedly left for Arista Networks.

In late 2011, Cisco hired David Ward away from Juniper. Ward, vice president of engineering, chief technology officer and chief architect who has been a key executive in the Cisco ONE effort, reportedly was promoted to senior vice president in the wake of Gandhi's departure.

Cisco is taking on the SDN trend, not only with the ONE initiative, but also through Insieme, a "spin-in" company created by Cisco that will focus on SDN technologies. Cisco invested $100 million to create the startup and has an option to eventually buy the company for $750 million.