Cyan brings software defined networks to the telco market

Cyan, a company formed in 2006 to build optical networking gear for telecommunications providers has had a pretty good run selling boxes to middle mile transit providers that helped Internet traffic bypass routers in the core networks as well as software that helped manage the core network. But after seeing the trend toward software defined networks, the company tweaked its business to focus on software.

The result is Blue Planet, controller software that has the ability to work with any vendor’s switches and underlying gear as well as APIs that let gear and applications sitting above the Cyan controller software talk to networking hardware. The product is akin to the controller software that Big Switch and Nicira sell. Big Switch just raised a $25 million Series B round of funding, while this summer Nicira was bought by VMware(s vmw) in a deal valued at $1.26 billion.

The catch for Cyan is that its primary market isn’t the data center, although Cyan Co-founder Eric Clelland notes that the company’s controller software can work there as well. But the target market is core Cyan customers (there are 120 of them so far) of ISPs and carriers who have already been buying its packet optical networking gear. Clelland said the company’s sales, while undisclosed, have grown at 100 percent year over year. He declined to discuss revenue profitability or the number of employees, but said the company is on a run rate to break $100 million in sales in 2012.

So far,with Blue Planet, Cyan is offering a slight twist on the traditional software defined networking story. First is that it’s going after a different market than many of the other vendors, although Nicira does have deployments with both AT&T and NTT both communications companies with IP transit businesses. Carriers may move more slowly than the large data center customers, but they are desperate to find cheaper ways to manage their networks as well as build services on top of their networks. This is slightly different from Nicira’s promise of SDNs as a way to virtualize networking, i.e., abstract the physical networking hardware from the virtual machines — giving data center operators more flexibility.

Instead the Cyan vision is closer to the promise that software defined networks will bring programmability to networks and allow applications to talk to the network directly. With both a northbound and southbound API, Cyan’s controller lets applications talk to the switches and the switch can talk to the applications. Most providers offer a northbound API that lets the switch talk to the applications, but that’s about the extent of the “conversation.”

Cyan also offers its own apps that customers can deploy as part of the overall Blue Planet software –although customers can build their own. However, I can see several of the smaller metro Ethernet providers and cable companies who are Cyan customers buying up an existing solution rather than rolling their own. Apps might include real-time bandwidth management based on customer demand and existing policies or dynamic bandwidth delivery for certain customers. The company’s controller software works with both Open Flow-compliant devices as well as legacy gear — another mark in its favor since few companies are likely to get excited about ripping out their old network to use SDNs.

As more companies emerge in this space with different philosophies around software defined networking, different views of the OpenFlow protocol that has all but disappeared from many conversations, and even different end customers, there’s no shortage of both marketing and opportunity. I think Cyan has certainly found an opportunity — after all it’s customers have long appreciated its software as well as its boxes — and I look forward to seeing how the metro Ethernet and carrier space deploys SDNs.