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Software-defined networking (SDN) represents the next great opportunity for the channel in enterprise networking, as interest in the technology continues to rise sharply. The challenge facing solution providers in the channel is figuring out what might be the best path to pursue to take advantage of that opportunity.

As it stands now, there are multiple classes of SDN products. The first are the hardware-centric offerings that providers of networking switch and router products, including Brocade Networks, Cisco, Extreme Networks, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Juniper Networks, are developing.

Two other hardware camps are emerging. For example, F5 Networks recently added SDN technology to its portfolio via its acquisition of LineRate Systems. F5 Networks has not explicitly said what it will do with that technology, but it is expected to argue that SDN software is better served when it’s managed via an application delivery controller (ADC).

At the same time, companies such as Big Switch Networks and Pica8 are making the case for the emergence of a new class of white-box switches based on open SDN software.

For example, Big Switch Networks recently unveiled Switch Light. This open-source software can deployed as a virtual switch on top of a white-box server to create an SDN platform based on the emerging OpenFlow SDN standard, which will compete with SDN platforms based on proprietary Ethernet switches from vendors such as Cisco.

“From a channel perspective, we’re focused on managed-service providers and resellers in the higher end of the market,” said Andrew Harding, senior director of product marketing for Big Switch Networks. “We think OpenFlow will open up the networking market.”

Pica8, meanwhile, developed PicaOS, a network operating system that sits on top of a white-box switch the company markets to make it easier to deploy its SDN technology.

“We’re following a white-box mentality,” said Steve Garrison, vice president of marketing for Pica8. “For right now, we need to sell a box just to be able to play in the market.”

In contrast, other SDN technologies rely on a more software-centric approach. Perhaps the best known of these at the moment is the Nicera SDN technology that VMware acquired last year. VMware announced that later this year it will be integrating Nicera SDN software with its vCloud management platform. That essentially means that it is going to take an approach to SDN that will be specifically optimized for VMware environments.