Commodity pricing pressure is forcing changes in the top-of-rack switch market. Pluribus Networks, a networking startup that specializes in switches with an operating system that enables network virtualization, is the latest vendor to feel those effects. It will rely on a third-party integrator to manufacture its top-of-rack data center switches from now on.
Merchant switch silicon from Broadcom and other chip makers have largely commoditized the top-of-rack switch market. Several startups have emerged with network operating systems designed to run on white box or bare-metal switches. Dell recently became the first OEM switch maker to open up its data center switches to third-party operating systems. Now, Pluribus has decided that selling and supporting software is more important than selling low-margin top-of-rack switches.
Pluribus offers two series of switches in its Freedom "server-switch" line: the E and F series. Both switches have an on-board x86 CPU that enables a variety of embedded functions and applications, such as Layer 4-7 services and security. The Freedom F series is generally a spine switch that does a lot of the heavy lifting for Pluribus' network virtualization control plane. The E series is typically a top-of-rack or leaf switch.
Until this time, Pluribus has worked with an original design manufacturer (ODM) to build all its switches and then sold them as an integrated offering with its Netvisor operating system. Now, Pluribus has struck a deal with Arrow Electronics, an Englewood, Colorado-based supply chain and manufacturing services company, to handle the manufacturing and sales of the E series top-of-rack switches. Pluribus will continue to build and sell its F series spine switches.
"[Pluribus has] always been focused on software, and the hardware is just a way to get you there," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst for Milford, Massachusetts-based Enterprise Strategy Group. "They're just looking for a platform on which to sell their software."
The switches will still be supported by Pluribus, but the company wanted to get out of the low-margin business of top-of-rack switches, said Dave Ginsburg, Pluribus' chief marketing officer.
"In that part of the market, there are some real commodity pricing pressures," Ginsburg said. "We're focusing more on our key intellectual property [i.e. software]."
The deal with Arrow will push down the price of the E series for data center operators. Arrow will offer the top-of-rack switch at a starting price of $6,800, or $100 per 10 Gigabit Ethernet port, Ginsburg said. Previously, Pluribus sold its E series switches for $10,000 to $12,000.
A bifurcated channel for Pluribus' spine-and-leaf switches might appear a little unconventional to some network architects. "As long as they have this relationship working in sync and it's relatively streamlined, I think it potentially will not dissuade customers from moving ahead," said Brad Casemore, research director for Framingham, Massachusetts-based IDC. But network engineers should ask Pluribus to offer reference customers who have succeeded with this new model, Casemore said
Just last week, Facebook unveiled design specifications for Wedge, a top-of-rack switch with an embedded server CPU that has some similarities to the architecture Pluribus uses in its hardware. Facebook plans to submit the design to the Open Compute Project's networking project as part of its ongoing effort to promote a bare-metal switching ecosystem. Pluribus views Wedge as a potential avenue for packaging and selling its software.
"We've actually had our proof-of-concept customers, who are testing the F series and are interested in the E series, asking us if we were going down the Open Compute route so that they could run Netvisor on that platform. The answer to date has been, 'Yes,'" Ginsburg said. "Wedge is another potential physical form factor. There are some fundamental limitations on the current Broadcom chip [used in Wedge] versus what we are able to do on Intel Alta chips. But we could go into a cloud provider, where a typical baseline deployment could be the Open Compute form factor in top-of-rack and a couple of our F series switches providing control of the fabric."