Arista hires a CFO, poaches a big shot Cisco executive

Arista, the next generating networking switch maker has hired a chief financial officer in what one can assume is the next step to an initial public offering. In addition, the company has poached a software defined networking executive from Cisco (s csco).

Arista has hired Michael Lehman to take on the role of CFO, saying in its release that as CFO of Palo Alto Networks, which recently hit the public markets, he helped make the networking company “IPO ready.” Lehman was the former CFO at Sun Microsystems and held the role when Sun sold to Oracle (s orcl).

If Arista is prepping for an IPO, that’s not exactly surprising. The company has built up a solid business in a hot area in the last seven years. My colleague Om Malik has covered Arista’s growth and the reason behind in several posts. The short of it, is Arista uses merchant silicon to make extremely fast switches that can handle the needs of scaled out or high performance networks. Customers from Wall Street banks to giant web shops buy its gear.

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Arista, was the emergence of OpenFlow, a protocol that lets vendors put the software to control how a network routes traffic on a commodity server as opposed to a switch. As a result customers could theoretically spend less money buying high-powered switches with expensive software on them, forcing the networking hardware to become a commodity and opening up more competition at the controller and management layer.

Arista's Andy Bechtolsheim at GigaOM RoadMap 2011Arista hasn’t spent a lot of time discussing how OpenFlow, and more broadly the idea of software defined networking would change its business, but it has spent the last few months adding SDN to its marketing efforts.

And today the company announced that it has hired Tom Black, to head up its SDN team. That’s worth noting because Black was an executive at Cisco in charge of it’s own SDN efforts — namely the creation of the PK One protocol which would give developers visibility into Cisco’s gear when it is released.

Black will be responsible helping Arista communicate its SDN vision, a task made more and more difficult as more vendors try to muddy the waters about what a software-defined network is and isn’t. Arista’s talking points have so far been that it already has an open and programmable software layer for the network in is EOS software. Arista also talks up its open APIs that let controllers talk to its switches.

But when faced with the promise of real software-defined networking and the potential for commoditizing the switch hardware and moving the largest chunk of value in networking to software that acts as a management layer, it’s unclear if Arista’s efforts to sell its hardware and networking software as a package will continue to work in the long run. In the short term, when most companies are just testing out software defined networks and are worried about interoperability, overlays and making sure things work together, Arista’s story, which combines the ease of use with some programmability is a winner.

But as the server market teaches us, cheap hardware is hard to fight and software will eventually eat networking too.