Change your data center network OS? Dell and Cumulus make it easier

On January 28, Dell and Cumulus Networks announced a partnership to support an open hardware architecture in the data center by disaggregating networking hardware and the OS that runs on it. Customers purchase bare-metal Ethernet switches and then choose the network OS to be installed rather than buying an integrated product.

An open networking hardware architecture can be attractive to cloud operators or to verticals such as the financial industry that want added control to support particular applications and have the resources to develop and integrate a protocol stack to support these capabilities.

Ovum sees growing vendor support for bare-metal switching. In addition to Dell and Cumulus Networks, the movement to an open hardware architecture is supported by Big Switch, Pica 8, and a handful of original design manufacturer (ODM) suppliers, and Facebook’s Open Compute project has undertaken development of an OS-agnostic open source top-of-rack (ToR) switch.

Dell’s entry brings credibility to the bare-metal Ethernet switch market

Dell supports customer interest in open hardware products with two fixed-configuration Ethernet switches, the S4810 and S6000, based on the Broadcom Trident II switch architecture. These bare-metal switches are configured with the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), open source software that functions as a bootstrap loader to allow the customer to select a network operating system (OS) that best supports its particular network needs. The customer can select the Dell OS (based on the Force10 OS and used in its other switch products) or a third-party OS such as Cumulus Linux; Dell will resell Cumulus Linux to customers that choose that option.

Dell’s new offering eliminates the need for customers to establish relationships with Asian ODM vendors of commodity bare-metal switch hardware and offers a familiar vendor for a ToR switch with a Linux OS and Dell support.

Cumulus Linux is a familiar OS environment for data centers

Cumulus Networks was formed in December 2010 to support the emergence of an open hardware architecture, and a market for bare-metal Ethernet switches, with a networking-focused Linux distribution called Cumulus Linux. Cumulus Linux is the operating system in over 10,000 commodity switches deployed in production networks at OrionVM, Dreamhost, Fastly, and at least one other large cloud service provider. Cumulus has developed a software driver for the Broadcom Trident switch architecture that allows hardware accelerated control of Ethernet switching traffic with Cumulus Linux. The company has qualified switches from ODM vendors Agema, Edge-Core, Penguin Computing, and Quanta QCT to operate with Cumulus Linux, and now it has added Dell to its hardware compatibility list. Cumulus Linux integrates the Quagga open source routing protocol, Open vSwitch (OVS), and can emulate a VMware NSX virtualized overlay node for customers looking to deploy SDN.

For customers that need added control over their network infrastructure and have the scale and resources to take advantage of an open hardware architecture, Dell and Cumulus Linux can offer a common deployment model between compute and networking infrastructure. Working in the Linux environment, such customers can manage, automate, and monitor their networks with open source and commercial Linux tools –probably many of the same tools they are already using with their servers.

Support question constrains the bare-metal Ethernet switch market

Customer acceptance of the bare-metal approach to networking is constrained by concerns about OS stability, scaling, and product support, with product support the biggest impediment for many potential customers. ToR Ethernet switch hardware from the major vendors (e.g. 3Com, Cisco, Dell, Extreme, HP, and Juniper) is very similar as it relies on merchant switching ASICs and is assembled by ODMs that often provide product for multiple customers. The key differentiators for these products usually come down to the proprietary OS integrated with the product and the system vendor’s support services.

Good support services are expensive to deliver. Cumulus is growing its support capabilities and says it is willing to take initial service calls from its software customers even if the problem is actually with a Cumulus-qualified hardware product. However, Cumulus Global Support Services is more suited to helping network operators with testing and fault isolation, and its capabilities don’t match the resources of a typical large system vendor. Dell brings a larger support and professional services network that may lower customers’ perceived risk in taking the open hardware architecture approach.

While Dell’s involvement may ease concerns about moving to an open hardware architecture, this approach is only appropriate for a select group of customers with the need for customized network control and the scale and resources to take on the burden of testing and integration. For the rest, Dell will continue to offer hardware integrated with its proprietary OS.


David Krozier, Principal Analyst, Network Infrastructure

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