I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world and talking about SDN[1] and related technologies (NFV, OpenStack, network virtualization, OpenFlow, etc.) for the past eight years. I’ve talked to customers, analysts, researchers, influencers, bloggers, reporters and--let’s face it--naysayers, and it’s been incredibly fulfilling to see the traction and impact this technology has had on the industry.  

Since I joined the Stanford Clean Slate Lab in 2008, it has been a wild ride with lots of twists and turns, successes, challenges -- and a lot of fun. In that time, I’ve seen SDN grow from an unheard of academic project run by ragtag graduate students, to confused marchitecture chased by incumbents, to today -- a rock solid, production-grade technology with deployments in the world’s biggest networks.  

At this point, I think even the naysayers can acknowledge that SDN improves networks. But, as I found along the way, it also improves careers. Eight years ago, I was a relatively unknown postdoc, and today (until about 5pm) I am Chief Technology Officer of the leading Next-Generation Data Center Networking company, Big Switch Networks.

In retrospect, much of my personal motivation has come from people telling me what SDN can’t do.

  • In 2008, people said we couldn’t get a switch manufacturer to create an open protocol, so we worked with vendors and deployed across 12+ college campuses as part of the GENI project.  
  • People said that this crazy academic project would never be a sustainable commercial product… so we founded Big Switch Networks in 2010, to do just that.  
  • Then people said that SDN was only for the data center, but Google and others deployed it in the WAN, and we created a product for DMZ networks and worked with others in access networks.  
  • People said SDN couldn’t scale, so we built scaleout testbeds with our partners and now have Fortune 1000 customers with over 100 racks of gear under a single controller cluster.  
  • People said no customer would ever deploy SDN in production, but now we have hundreds of customers in production, spread across five continents, 25 countries and three products.  

As the company and the technology scale up, the naysayers are running out of credibly negative things to say. SDN is no longer a crazy idea. It’s a real, viable technology that will forever change the face of networking and Big Switch is leading this disruption.

Yes, there are still challenges to be solved for, there is still work to be done, but it’s no longer “if” the challenge can be solved for, it’s “how” the challenge can be solved for.   

I owe A LOT to SDN and to Big Switch, but I’ve made the difficult decision to go back to my roots. I want to be in a lab. I want to look at a seemingly unsolvable problem and prove the naysayers wrong, yet again. Given the success of the technology and Big Switch’s current trajectory, I’ve decided now is the right time.

In early 2017 I’ll be joining Facebook. It’s no secret that their network is growing at an incredible rate and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help Facebook’s world-class networking team solve for complex and massive challenges each day.

I am convinced that the best days lay ahead for Big Switch Networks and SDN technology. It was not an easy decision for me to leave Big Switch, so I am happy that I will have the opportunity to remain engaged with the company as a Strategic Advisor, where I’ll work directly with Doug. I have complete faith in the team I leave behind, I know they will continue to grow this vision and frankly, I wouldn’t be leaving right now if I felt otherwise.

I want to end this on a note of gratitude. I worked with many, many people during my time at Big Switch, those I wrote code with, traveled to meet customers with and everyone in between, thank you to each of you. Thank you to every customer who listened to us when we said networking should be easier and took a chance on us. Thank you to our founders and all of the innovators at Stanford and the Clean Slate Lab.  

This has been a phenomenal journey for me and this is bittersweet to say the least. I’m so proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish with the Big Switch team.


Rob Sherwood,

Big Switch Networks, CTO


[1] The term was first coined in an MIT Review article as a play off of “Software Defined Radios” : http://www2.technologyreview.com/news/412194/tr10-software-defined-networking/.  Technically it still leaves a lot to be desired :-)