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Open source networking: Mellanox introduces Open Ethernet

Data center switching vendor Mellanox will support open source software on its switches, giving customers more choice in how they run their networks.

The era of closed platforms in the Ethernet switching industry is over, according to Mellanox Technologies, the Israeli data center Ethernet and InfiniBand networking specialist.

Mellanox has introduced its Open Ethernet initiative, which gives customers the option of running a complete open source networking stack on Ethernet hardware, allowing them to tweak and customize networks to their own specifications, said Gilad Shainer, senior director of market development at Mellanox.

"Vendors create silicon and build boxes and put software ... on top of it that is proprietary. There is no opportunity for you to bring your own value," Shainer said. "Vendors want to keep it like this because once you start buying from them, you're locked in."

By open sourcing its code and enabling greater network programmability, Mellanox could establish a window into large data center accounts, said Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"I think Mellanox sees the large Web and cloud shops adopting merchant silicon and white-box switches from ODMs [original design manufactures], and it wants to see whether it can capture a portion of that market," Casemore said. With a foot in the door, "Mellanox might then offer those customers integration services or perhaps even convert them into switch customers," he added.

Some vendors, like Arista Networks, have opened up application program interfaces to their network software and encouraged customers to program networks to their own specifications. Other vendors are also promoting an open source approach to software-defined networking (SDN). Yet opening up a normally proprietary platform to open source software can put a vendor's install base at risk. Most established vendors hold onto their customers by locking them into a vertically integrated, closed platform. Unlike these more established switching vendors, Mellanox has little to lose with Open Ethernet, Casemore said. Mellanox would rather get its technology into the hands of network engineers any way it can.

Opening up network code can offer even more programmability than some SDN offerings, even allowing engineers to customize the network for optimized application performance.

"SDN and OpenFlow started as something that can provide an interface for people to control things," Shainer said. "It wasn't opening everything. It was just providing a window. But even with that, most vendors were providing limited capabilities for what you can control."

Total openness is particularly important to cloud providers and Web companies that differentiate themselves through data center infrastructure, he said.

"When you look at Web 2.0, Facebook, Google Maps, it's a single application that runs on top of a very large and scalable data center. That application's characteristics are well-known to the folks who write, manage and update the application. When you know the characteristics of the application, you can modify the traffic routing within a data center to fit the application and avoid congestion and hot spots and cases where CPUs are idle. If you cannot do that, and your routing protocols are the same as any other's protocols, you cannot really optimize [for differentiation]," Shainer said.

Open Ethernet may appeal to cloud providers and Web companies, but openness is not a high priority for mainstream enterprise network engineers, said Andre Kindness, principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

"It cracks me up how much pull cloud providers have to dictate things based on their relative buying power," Kindness said. Ease of use and reliability are much more important to most enterprise network engineers, he said.

Mellanox is still identifying the open source technology it will support on its hardware. It will support OpenFlow for SDN and Quagga for Layer 3. It is still evaluating options for Layer 2 switching and management. It will fill some open source gaps by open sourcing its own proprietary network software. The details for what exactly will be open are fuzzy now, but Mellanox said it will demonstrate a more complete open source networking stack on its hardware at Interop Las Vegas in May.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.

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