Bare metal switches: Will merchant silicon take over networking?

New vendors are pushing network architectures that decouple software from hardware and run on bare metal switches with merchant silicon. Have we reached the x86 era in networking?

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Half a decade ago, the Barenaked Ladies played at Cisco Live in Orlando. I skipped the performance because I have good taste.

Today I can't help but wonder if Cisco was prescient with its choice of mediocre musical entertainment, because the networking industry is baring it all. A growing number of vendors are promoting networking architectures that decouple software from hardware and run on bare-metal switches. It's easier to do this now that merchant silicon vendors like Broadcom and Intel are ramping up the processing power of off-the-shelf chips for network hardware. The trend is similar to what happened in the compute market when x86 operating systems were decoupled from bare-metal servers.

Companies like Cumulus Networks, Pica8 and Big Switch Networks are all selling network operating systems designed to run on bare-metal switches. In a perfect world, these vendors don't want anything to do with hardware. They'd rather sell you software and services and have you buy your own switches from Accton, Penguin Computing or Quanta. Then you'd simply boot up the networking software just as a systems engineer does with his servers.

These vendors aren't exactly titans of the industry, but they're also not alone in their bare-metal, software-centric view of the world. Arista Networks doesn't tout the bare-metal model, but it emphasizes software over hardware and builds its switches on Broadcom chips. If Arista were launched today, I suspect the company's business model would look a lot more like what Cumulus has.

Then we have Facebook, which has expanded its Open Compute Project (OCP) into switching. Facebook has been developing a bare-metal switch internally, much like Google did years ago. Unlike Google, Facebook is pushing its prototype out into the market through the OCP, so its specs will eventually be embraced by Cumulus, Pica8 and Big Switch. Meanwhile white box vendors like Accton in Asia will build the switches, and networking vendors will help them build robust supply chains so that mainstream enterprises can buy in more easily.

Cisco has caught on to this bare-metal enthusiasm … at least in lip service. Cisco isn't decoupling IOS from its Catalyst switches or NX-OS from its Nexus switches, but the company's new Nexus 9000 series born out of spin-in Insieme Networks will be based on both merchant silicon and proprietary ASICs and have the ability to run two different Cisco operating systems, depending on which architecture data center operators choose. When I spoke to Frank D'Agostino, Insieme's senior director of technical marketing and solutions, he told me to consider the new Nexus 9000 switches "like bare-metal switches."

The Nexus 9000 switches don't meet my definition of bare metal, which holds that a device should be able to run any software that's written to the hardware architecture. I doubt that Cisco will ever allow data center operators to do that, so instead it's giving engineers a choice between two of its proprietary operating systems. Nevertheless, Cisco must see the bare metal trend as a threat or it wouldn't be co-opting the phrase.

Despite the bare metal buzz, going the way of merchant silicon will require something of a religious conversion. Companies like Facebook and Google that depend on technology to be their differentiator can afford to push their engineers out of their comfort zones with new kinds of networks, but mainstream enterprise IT organizations have a much lower affinity for revolutionary change. Generally, network engineers are the whipping boys of IT. When outages happen, everyone points fingers at the network. Networkers have responded by sticking with the most dependable and highly supported platforms they can find. Until today, those platforms have been closed boxes that feature a proprietary mix of hardware and software. That's precisely how Cisco has maintained its margins and market share throughout the 21st century.

Yet a growing minority of engineers wants things to change. Data center operators need networks to be more nimble, automated and responsive. Closed systems from the Ciscos of the world haven't evolved fast enough to answer the call. As a result we've seen a tsunami of software-defined networking and network virtualization hype wash over the industry. Bare-metal switching is yet another outgrowth of this whole movement. Network engineers will eventually have to decide if they want to take the plunge.

About the author:
Shamus McGillicuddy is the director of news and features for TechTarget's Networking Media Group. He writes about networking, security, data centers, network management and other topics for SearchNetworking.com. He also manages overall news coverage for TechTarget's other networking sites, including SearchUnifiedCommunications.com, SearchEnterpriseWAN.com and SearchCloudProvider.com.

This was first published in December 2013

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