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Network Innovation Award: Dell breaks mold with Dell/Cumulus partnership

Dell wins this month's Network Innovation Award from SearchNetworking for its partnership with Cumulus Networks, in which Dell became the first mainstream switch vendor to permit third-party OSes to run on its switches.

As the broader IT industry moved away from infrastructure bounded by proprietary hardware and software, networking equipment vendors remained one of the last holdouts. But last year, Dell became the first major switch vendor to break that mold when it partnered with Cumulus Networks, giving customers the option of running Cumulus' Linux-based network operating system on two of Dell's switches. That's why we're naming Dell this month's winner of SearchNetworking's Network Innovation Award.

TechTarget features and e-zine editor Jessica Scarpati recently spoke with Tom Burns, vice president and general manager of Dell's networking and enterprise infrastructure group, to find out what's behind the Dell/Cumulus partnership and what it means for enterprises.

What led up to Dell's decision to open up its switches to third-party software?

Tom Burns: There are a couple of different reasons. The first relates to the changes that have occurred in networking. If you look at networking from a traditional standpoint, a lot of the hardware and software that's attached have been very proprietary. Companies were basing their technology on internally developed ASICs -- the primary brain for the network switch. That began to change about eight or nine years ago, when merchant silicon was starting to be improved and introduced in the market. More and more switching vendors started to use merchant silicon versus proprietary ASICs.

But from a software perspective, it's been a relatively legacy [approach]. Protocols or features are continually added, and we've gotten to the point now that in traditional networking there are probably over a thousand different features in a traditional networking switch. And we find, in most cases, our customers truly only need maybe less than a hundred [of those features] -- particularly in the data center, where "more features" is becoming less relevant as more networking becomes software-defined. More is being done at a software level, versus inside the switch, either via a controller or hypervisor, or through programmability.

So we started to see more open-standards-based hardware, and then we started to see software being developed by companies such as Cumulus that were more properly addressing networking requirements [with platforms] based on Linux. The fact that they're based in Linux means customers can then use a consistent level of tools between compute and network, so the network becomes much easier to manage and configure, with [less reliance on the] CLI and physical requirements for setting up that network. That change in technology and the maturity of the technology gave us the opportunity.

The second thing is it really looks similar to what Michael [Dell] did with personal computing and what Dell did in transforming the mainframe market into the x86 market. If you think mainframes from 25 or 30 years ago, the technology was very similar -- it was end-to-end proprietary hardware and software from companies such as Digital Equipment, Sun and IBM, and then Intel and others introduced the x86 or more common processors. Then companies such as Dell took that, combined it with third-party software and showed customers [it could provide] the scale, the support and the ability to really handle compute environments withoutthe capital expense and also the operating cost of a mainframe.

It's been a year since the Dell/Cumulus partnership launched. What's happened with Dell's Open Networking initiative since then?

Burns: Our open networking strategy continues to evolve, and it evolves around adding other software providers, such as what we do with Switch Light from Big Switch and their Big Tap Monitoring, and what we do from the extension of Layer 4 through Layer 7 services or through hypervisors.

The move toward software-defined doesn't mean hardware is irrelevant.
Tom Burnsvice president and general manager, Dell

[Another recent partner,] Midokura, adds a different way to implement virtualization or software-defined networking in an OpenStack environment. We see three paths to a cloud or software-defined [environment]: You have VMware, you have Microsoft and you have OpenStack. You have others, but those are the most common three that enterprises are looking at, studying and implementing. Midokura fits into OpenStack. It works with our operating software from a traditional standpoint, and it also works with … our [switches that run] Cumulus.

It's about customer choice and simplicity as to how they want to implement a software-defined environment. We've added partners because we've seen tremendous demand for information, pilots, proofs of concept and full deployments. If you think about Cumulus and the S6000, we have Medallia, a customer we announced [last October] that's completely implemented the Dell/Cumulus solution in their entire environment, both in the leaf and in the spine. They're taking advantage of it being Linux-based with very solidified, proven hardware and more importantly, they're now able to really grow their business without the concerns about how much more they're going to have to invest in network administrators. They're allowing their traditional business ops team to manage, configure, change and monitor the network using consistent tools across compute and networking.

It seems like the sysadmin role, having that Linux background, is getting a lot more involved in open networking deployments in general.

Burns: If you want to roll out new services, what Dell calls a "future-ready IT," we need a more agile and flexible infrastructure so that we can make real-time changes very quickly. And to do that, we need a more consistent set of tools, a consistent set of business operations or internal talent that cannot just look at compute but can also look at networking and storage. We are seeing an uptick -- there's a bigger demand to have consistency here so that more of the business operations [teams] have the capability to look at the cross-converged silos of servers, storage and networking.

Isn't this model commoditizing switch hardware?

Burns: The move toward software-defined doesn't mean hardware is irrelevant. In fact, I really do not like the wording that we're "moving to bare-metal switching." This is not bare-metal switching. There's still a significant amount of intelligence that's in the hardware, quality of service and security. It's about how the software extracts that intelligence and gives the user the capability to manage it and change it based upon their workloads or, more importantly, their workflows. So I don't like the phrase bare-metal switching or that we're just "slapping software on it," because that integration of hardware and software is very important.

Next Steps

Dell, VMware NSX and Cumulus Linux OS: It all comes together

What do you think of the Dell/Cumulus partnership?

Midokura and Cumulus team up for bare-metal VXLAN gateway

This was last published in January 2015

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