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Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches

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Dell offers bare-metal switches through Cumulus partnership

Dell says yes to bare-metal networking, allowing customers to run Cumulus and other operating systems on its switches.

Dell is cracking open its data center switches and allowing customers to buy them as bare-metal devices that run third-party software.

The first software alternative it will support comes from new partner Cumulus Networks, whose Linux-based network operating system was -- until now -- available only on bare-metal switches built by original device manufacturers (ODMs). Dell is the first mainstream networking vendor to embrace the bare-metal switching model.

"This is potentially the first shot in the commoditization of the networking business, just as we saw it happen when proprietary silicon-based minicomputers got replaced by x86 and Microsoft," said Joe Skorupa, research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "How far it goes? Not clear. But here's the first real indication that it [has] started."

Dell is offering the bare-metal option on its S4810 and S6000 switches, which engineers will be able to use to build basic leaf-and-spine networks. Customers will buy the switches from Dell, along with Dell services and support. Then they will have the option of downloading and installing the Cumulus software.

Dell will also continue to offer its own proprietary software. The bare-metal approach is a narrow initiative for now, geared to companies embracing new operational models.

"This option allows [Dell's] customers to experiment with new ways of working with networking gear, something that Dell has embraced on the systems software side," said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst for New York-based 451 Research.

Dell bare-metal switching: Niche today, big time some day

Cumulus Linux is not your typical network OS. There isn't a command-line interface. Instead, the software is designed to be provisioned and managed by server management and DevOps tools like Puppet and Chef.

"Customers get a disaggregated model for software and hardware. Then they can run Linux with a common set of tools across servers and networking," said Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product marketing at Dell Networking.  A Linux-based bare-metal approach enables networks that are more programmable, he said. "Today if there are features or applications needed by customers, they have to go to vendors and it will take six to 12 months to turn them around. This allows for faster innovation in the modern data center."

Most IT organizations are not accustomed to managing networks in this way, so Dell is focusing on a small subset of customers initially, targeting  massively scalable data centers, Web giants and large financial institutions. As the business model proves itself, Dell will widen its market.

"The focus of this distribution is initially the customers who have a large IT staff [that] want more of an OpEx play where you have consistency across servers and networking," Joshipura said.

With the right skills in place, an IT organization can greatly reduce the cost of network operations by exploiting the programmability of these bare-metal Dell switches, he said. The capital costs will also be lower. Dell isn't disclosing how much it will charge for bare-metal switches, but Joshipura said the price will be around 20% lower than switches running Dell's proprietary software, depending on volume and type of customer.

Until now, bare-metal switching has only been available through ODMs based in Taiwan and elsewhere in the Far East. Those ODMs lacked North American distribution channels, Gartner's Skorupa said.  Only companies like Google and Facebook were big enough to deal directly with these ODMs and buy in volumes sufficient enough to make the venture worthwhile.

With Dell stepping into the bare-metal game, the market suddenly has a vendor with a stateside supply chain and a global support model that enterprises are comfortable with.

"It's the hardware support piece," said 451's Hanselman. "Now you've got somebody you know well and with whom [many] already have a relationship with for [servers]."

"There is a reasonable chance that you will find an ODM that will come in at a much lower price point than Dell would," said J.R. Rivers, founder and CEO of Cumulus. However, many enterprises will pay a slightly higher premium for bare-metal switches from a vendor who can, for instance, immediately replace failed hardware, he said.

Just what do you need in a data center switch?

Dell's embrace of Cumulus and bare-metal switching contrasts sharply with other networking vendors, including market leader Cisco, which insists that proprietary software integrated into custom silicon is essential for data center networking.

Many data center switches today have a heavy software load that support a wide array of features, including WAN routing. This complex software demands sophisticated and customized hardware. Cumulus Linux, by contrast, has a light software footprint with a streamlined set of data center switching features.  

During Cisco Live US last year, Cisco CEO John Chambers said the typical enterprise router has 36 million lines of software code on it. He said there is no way that software that complex can run on merchant silicon or a network overlay like VMware NSX.

Before Chambers made that argument, Gartner was already researching just how much code a data center network operating system truly needs, Skorupa said.

"And the answer was 2 million lines," he said. "Not only do you not need the other [34 million], but [that additional code] actually destabilizes your environment even if you're not using those other features. As software grows and the teams working on it grow, you lose track of dependency. Five different guys wind up sharing the same memory management module and no one realizes the other four are using it. You upgrade the software and all of a sudden your data center network crashes and you have no idea why. When the [Cisco] Nexus 7000 was originally announced, it was supposed to have a data center-specific software load. But they kept adding more and more software to it so it could become a WAN edge router, and that presents certain software quality problems."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director or follow him on Twitter @ShamusTT

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Essential Guide

Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches
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