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Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches

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Cumulus Networks update: Broadcom Trident II-based bare-metal switches

Cumulus Networks released version 2.0 of its Linux-based network OS for bare-metal switches based on Broadcom Trident II chips.

Cumulus Networks is rolling out a new version of its network operating system that adds support for switches built with Broadcom's Trident II silicon. The upgraded OS, Cumulus Linux 2.0, also adds commercial agents for leading systems management tools like Puppet, Chef and CFEngine.

Cumulus' Linux distribution, Cumulus Linux, is built to serve as an operating system for bare-metal network switches. The software is free to download and Cumulus offers commercial support.

Cumulus Linux 2.0, available at the end of November, has been updated to work on Broadcom's Trident II, network silicon that supports such features as high-density 10 and 40 Gigabit Ethernet ports, and network virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN) capabilities like hardware support of virtual extensible LAN (VXLAN). Most networking OEMs have introduced Trident II-based switches this year, including Cisco, Juniper Networks, Arista Networks, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

The new OS will allow customers to run the software on forthcoming Trident II-based, bare-metal switches from Cumulus partners like Accton Technology, Quanta and Penguin Computing.

Trident II silicon expands the variety of form factors that bare-metal switch manufacturers can build, according to J.R. Rivers, Cumulus CEO and co-founder. Most bare-metal -- or white box -- switches have been fixed-configuration, top-of-rack devices. With Trident II, manufacturers can build larger spine switches for leaf-spin networks. Even modular switches might emerge, according to some experts.

"Cumulus needs to be on whatever the latest and greatest hardware happens to be," said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst for New York-based 451 Research. With Trident II support, Cumulus customers will be able to build bare-metal switch networks with more throughput and performance, he said.

With Trident II readiness, Cumulus also gains hardware support of VXLAN, the tunneling protocol that is increasingly underpinning network virtualization technologies such as VMware NSX. VXLAN enables Cumulus switches to serve as high-performance service gateways that can integrate bare-metal servers into a hypervisor-based virtual network.

Commercial agents for systems management platforms

Because Cumulus Linux allows engineers to manage switches much like they manage servers, many customers oversee those switches with popular systems management platforms like Puppet and Chef. And since Cumulus is an open source platform, customers had been using the open source agents for these platforms on the switches. With Cumulus Linux 2.0, the company partnered with many of these platform developers to distribute the commercial version of agents within the new OS, Rivers said.

"There are configuration management tools like CFEngine that have an open source version, but they also have a commercial version that requires a commercial version of both the controller and the agent," Rivers said. "We've worked with all those companies to get access to the commercial versions of their agents and get them compiled. And we have the rights to distribute them as part of our Linux distribution so customers are able to download those binary elements and install them on Cumulus Linux. That whole part is free of charge. They only get charged for a license when they connect it back to the [commercial controller]."

Cumulus offers commercial agents for CFEngine, Opscode's Chef, Puppet Labs and AnsibleWorks.

"The Cumulus value proposition is that you can treat your networking devices exactly the same way, using the same automation tools that you use for servers," Hanselman said. "Cumulus is banking on the hope that server teams want to integrate networking capabilities and build them in the same way they are operating servers today."

Cumulus continues to forge ahead in a very new market

Bare-metal switches remain a novel notion to the networking industry. The vast majority of network engineers have been working with highly integrated, proprietary switches from Cisco and others for decades. But then Arista Networks came along with its open and programmable Linux-based EOS software packaged on Arista-engineered switches with Broadcom silicon. Now, Cumulus and some other vendors -- such as SDN pioneer Big Switch Networks -- are attempting to urge the industry toward the concept of using bare-metal switches running open source network software.

"They are trying to develop a market that to this point has not existed," said Lee Doyle, founder and principal analyst of Wellesley, Mass.-based Doyle Research. "The people who are doing this have 300 or more switches. They're the big cloud guys. If you're Facebook or eBay or Google you're looking at collapsing servers and storage and networking and you're really into Puppet and Chef. If you're a mainstream business, absolutely not. White box switching is targeted at 10% of the market right now, but the mainstream is not ready for this."

Hanselman said Cumulus is trying to build a business based on the frustration that systems engineers have with how slowly the network responds to changes within systems and applications. Some of those systems engineers are ready to take charge.

"It is yet another of these potential shifts in who is actually making decisions about interconnections. It's also going to be one of the big motivators for networking departments to make sure they can move forward rapidly and adapt to this. The question is -- are server teams ready to make those kinds of network provisioning decisions? For certain teams? Yeah. Is it a model for everyone? No. But there is certainly more than enough enthusiasm out there to be able to improve the provisioning of networking hardware."

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Essential Guide

Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches

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