James Sun is CEO of Centec Networks, a white-box switch provider that manufactures and markets IP/Ethernet switching silicon and advanced ODM/OEM systems. We talked to him about what it’s like to enter the ring with an 800-pound gorilla and how SDN is changing the game for merchant silicon.
Your SDN Idol win at the 2013 Open Networking Summit brought Centec to the attention of the SDN world as a merchant silicon vendor doing battle with Broadcom, Marvell, and Intel/Fulcrum. Does the networking world need one more merchant silicon vendor?
Sun: We did start out as being an alternative to Broadcom’s silicon. Just like any market space, our industry needs healthy competition to provide differentiation and avoid monopoly effects that dampen innovation. The reality is that in the merchant Ethernet switching space, Broadcom is the dominant player. But we’re seeing that with SDN and the recent changes in networking, it’s no longer about just the silicon. It’s about integrated systems, which is what we alone bring to the table.
Today we see Centec first and foremost as an integrated solutions provider of white box switches, more than just a merchant silicon vendor. We design and ship a complete networking solution, from the switching chipset, to the Layer 2/Layer 3/OpenFlow software features, to the complete hardware switching platform.
It’s not easy to provide all this functionality. The challenge, especially with Ethernet switching, is when you have a lot of features and knobs and they have to work coherently. To provide the level of functionality we do requires incredible engineering effort, years of experience, corporate dedication, and focus on the space. For Centec, Ethernet switching is our mainstay and the only thing we focus on.
What are the advantages of working with a vendor like Centec Networks that owns both the silicon as well as the integrated system?
Sun: As an underdog in the Ethernet switching market, we understand we have to provide clear competitive value to our customers to gain market share. For us, that means providing a differentiated solution with specific technical highlights, better support such as direct engineering support, a productized system solution, and a better overall cost structure.
With SDN Networking, it’s no longer just about capabilities, speeds, and features of the switch. Now it’s about use cases and specific applications that the customers have. Our switches can stand up to any others in the market, but what we do differently is our position in the value chain: to provide a white box solution with strong technical capability starting from the silicon level. Because we have an integrated platform, we can provide a faster response time and better ability for the customer to tweak the final product for meeting customers’ specialized needs use case by use case, application by application.
What are Centec’s credentials in being a viable networking vendor? How are you building trust in your brand to provide critical components like switching chips?
Sun: Brand trust is not built overnight. We’ve been around for nine years in this highly competitive market, and we are here to stay. We have gone through three generations of product and three stages of market penetration. We’ve gone from the initial lab product stage; to having a competitive product with early customers, numerous qualification tests; then to having a competitive product with leading customer endorsements. Now our third-generation products are winning designs at Tier 1 OEMs in China, and our white-box switches are winning bids against established commercial switch vendors.
To continue our growth requires strong emphasis on Centec’s turnkey solution. We are thankful for the trust and patience from our customers. We are more than just another merchant silicon vendor and are proud of what we have provided and continue to provide for them. Our productized white-box solution deployed at end customers clearly shows what can be built using Centec silicon and the sophistication of the associated SDK.
How do you see SDN and the next generation of networking affecting you? How does the opportunity landscape change for a company like Centec?
Sun: SDN is a great opportunity for innovative companies like Centec, just as it is for a lot of our customers and partners. It’s more application-centric than the original vendor-centric nature of our market. There was a lot of consolidation in the networking market space in the past decade, and the change to application-centric enables Centec to have better opportunity for market penetration via Centec’s solution-level customization for such applications.
How can you help end users interested in new networking technologies like SDN? What benefits can you bring?
Sun: End users have a lot of interest in new networking technologies like SDN due to their specific application needs. The challenge for them is a chicken-and-egg problem. End users care only about their specific applications, which usually require a certain level of optimization. On the other hand, with the initial volume of deployment being low, it’s difficult for end users to find the appropriate technology provider to fulfill their needs.
Centec has the technical capability to fulfill those needs and is flexible enough to be willing to do system-level customization. Since we make our own silicon and know its hidden capabilities deep down, we can bring the best out of the silicon.
Can you provide some concrete examples of how Centec as an integrated player was able to solve customer problems that other networking vendors could not?
Sun: Absolutely! Let’s start with Sakura Internet, an ISP in Japan who had been trying to rewrite their Layer 3 headers for a specific application they were working on. The Broadcom switches available to them from various vendors were not able to perform this task. We were able to leverage our silicon capability to expose this for the customer in a very short amount of time. Yet another is uCloud in China, which provides mission-critical application hosting via their public cloud platform. We were able to create custom plug-ins for their applications as well as adapt agents on our V330/V350 switches to accommodate their use of OpenFlow to virtualize existing legacy networking functions such as non-virtualized physical servers, firewalls and wireless APs.
What about partners and OEMs? How can you bring value to them? What are the best-fit use cases for your chips?
Sun: With SDN, we are seeing a lot of innovative companies who focus on delivering optimized solutions for specific applications. Those are great partners for Centec. Working together, they can repurpose Centec’s white-box solution to better fit their application needs, with or without customization. Our solution enables those partners to focus on application-level merits that bring more value, with shortened time to market and initial investment. OEMs can start with our white-box offering and integrate into the product line as the solution matures.
The best-fit use cases for Centec’s chips are for metro and data-center applications where people seek new technology innovation in SDN and NFV and are looking at the white-box value-chain change. A couple of examples are carrier Ethernet switching (PTN/IPRAN/NID) with strong SDN desires and data center ToR [top-of-rack] boxes. Our chips are an especially good fit for OEMs seeking a quick solution to enter the Ethernet switching market with cutting-edge, carrier-grade capability and great potential for innovation such as SDN.
Is there a way to get started with Centec’s products if I’m an end user? What are some of the first use cases you would recommend they start with?
Sun: End users can start with Centec’s productized white-box solutions right away. Based on our experience, initial use cases we recommend include cloud applications, traffic engineering and user management.
Examples of where Centec can add value include cloud applications such as OpenStack where hardware offload of certain virtual switching functions is desirable to enhance performance; or SDN-enabled carrier Ethernet transport to better support NFV applications. Of course, we are thrilled by the innovative ideas we come across from end users when they look deep down in their application needs.
What questions should potential partners ask themselves before picking their merchant silicon partner?
Sun: Potential partners should ask the obvious questions first — performance, features, cost, etc. But that should just be the starting point. We encourage potential partners to ask questions such as: what kind of system turnkey solution will be available, what the quality of the solution is, what level of engineering support will be provided, and what kind of technology differentiation they will be able to achieve with their partner.
What are your hopes for Centec? What is your team focused on in the next 18 to 24 months?
Sun: My dream for Centec is to establish Centec as an innovative and trusted technology provider in Ethernet switching silicon and solutions. The team’s focus over the next 18 to 24 months will be on two fronts. First, we plan to continue to expand our product line to cover high-density 10-Gb/s switching silicon and white-box solutions with a strong SDN focus. Second, we plan to ensure customer success as they roll out products based on Centec technology and work closely with end users, software partners, and ODM vendors to build an open ecosystem.