Barefoot Scores $130M for Programmable Switch To Make Networks Smart

We’re all always watching out for those new companies whose innovations turn out to be the gateway for systemic change across many tech sectors, as early mobile devices and cloud computing services did.

Palo Alto, CA-based Barefoot Networks today laid claim to that earth-mover status, emerging from stealth after two years to announce it had raised a total of $130 million to advance its high-speed, programmable processing switch that will allow businesses and telecommunications companies to customize the way their data networks handle information.

Barefoot describes its Tofino chip as a disruptive challenge to a “tightly held cabal of switch chip vendors” whose fixed-function switches lock customers into a heavily standardized network architecture. These switches are the traffic cops that route data packets around the Internet.

With a programmable switch, a company’s network can become like a computer whose functions are variable according to the software that directs it, Barefoot says.

In addition to competing with established switch vendors, programmable switches can incorporate new features that might replace products like firewalls and load balancers, Barefoot says. Cloud storage, now a common commodity, could become a more competitive sector as providers build superior features into their networks, Barefoot predicts.

Adding to earlier investments, Google and Goldman Sachs Principal Strategic Investments led Barefoot’s most recent fundraising round of $57 million. They were joined by “four other industry-leading strategic investors,” along with Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Andreessen Horowitz. That brings Barefoot’s total fundraising to $130 million.

(Barefoot isn’t the only startup that thinks the hardware infrastructure of the Internet is too dumb to handle the enormous explosion of traffic that now depends on it. Burlington, MA-based startup 128 Technology emerged from stealth today to announce that it’s writing software that could make routers more intelligent, and endow them with memory.)

Nick McKeown

Nick McKeown

Barefoot’s co-founder and chief scientist, Nick McKeown, is a Stanford professor and co-founder of Nicira, which was acquired by VMWare for more than $1.2 billion in 2014. Nicira “proved that private and public cloud networks can be controlled by software,” said Andreessen Horowitz partner Ben Horowitz in a written statement. “Barefoot will prove that the entire network, all the way down to how packets are processed, can be written in software.”

In a story today, Wired reporter Cade Metz says Barefoot’s claims amount to more than the typical startup hype. In fact, the story title is “Barefoot Networks’ New Chips Will Transform the Tech Industry.”

“Barefoot is building a new breed of chip that will alter the inner workings of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn. It will force a response from hardware giants like Cisco and big chip makers like Intel and Broadcom. It will feed the evolution of telecommunication empires like AT&T,” Metz wrote. Metz foresees competition for Barefoot from companies such as Broadcom and Intel, predicting that other players will develop open-source, programmable chips.

Barefoot says it has broken barriers that previously stood in the way of programmable switches, which used to come at a cost of decreased processing speed. The startup claims to have doubled the possible speed, processing data packets at 6.5 terabits per second.

The Tofino chip is programmed with the free, open source programming language P4. Some customers have already been writing P4 programs that have been run on the chip, Barefoot says. Businesses will be able to buy samples of the Tofino chip late this year and begin creating software to adapt it for their networks.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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