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Microsoft network OS could attract large enterprises

Microsoft's Azure network OS could eventually have an impact on how enterprises build cloud data centers.

Microsoft's decision to build its own network operating system (NOS) will initially affect hardware suppliers for its Azure cloud data center. However, large enterprises often follow the lead of companies operating hyperscale data centers, so Microsoft's work could eventually have a broader impact.

Last week, Microsoft released details on why it decided to develop the Azure Cloud Switch (ACS), which is software for running network switches. ACS was first demonstrated last month at the in London.

ACS is a Linux-based, cross-platform, modular operating system for data center networking. Microsoft's reason for developing the network OS was to integrate the radically different software that now runs across Azure's stable of switches into a cloud-wide network management platform.

"ACS allows us to debug, fix and test software bugs much faster," Kamala Subramaniam, principal architect for Azure Networking, said in a blog post. "It also allows us the flexibility to scale down the software and develop features that are required for our data center and our networking needs."

For now, Microsoft's use of ACS will only affect switch vendors that sell networking hardware to Azure. "Presumably, they will be compelled to provide switches that are capable of running ACS," said Brad Casemore, analyst at IDC, based in Framingham, Mass.

Switch maker Arista Networks Inc., a Microsoft supplier for Azure, said it would accommodate ACS.

"It is not unusual for cloud titans to have both internal engineering efforts and vendor partnerships," said Anshul Sadana, senior vice president for customer engineering at Arista, based in Santa Clara, Calif. "This is consistent with the Arista and Microsoft partnership, which remains strong, healthy and based on open standards."

ACS impact on enterprises

Microsoft has not announced plans to sell ACS to enterprises. Nevertheless, the technology could eventually spread to large organizations that want to be like big cloud providers. About one-third of companies interviewed by The Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. (ESG) said they wanted to follow the technology lead of large-scale cloud and software as a service (SaaS) providers.

Enterprises -- the larger ones at least -- look at what the hyperscale vendors are doing and sometimes aspire to be like them.
Dan Condeanalyst at The Enterprise Strategy Group

"Enterprises -- the larger ones, at least -- look at what the hyperscale vendors are doing and sometimes aspire to be like them," said Dan Conde, analyst at ESG, based in Milford, Mass.

Microsoft software is already prominent in many data centers. For example, its Windows operating system (OS) is used to run everything from business applications to databases.

Adding ACS as the network OS for software-defined networking (SDN) is certainly possible. "Microsoft has a lot of mass in the data center, and I'm sure can make the ACS very attractive -- especially to those looking to run the Azure stack in-house," said John Burke, analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

Open standards in ACS

Meantime, Microsoft is using ACS to promote the use of open standards in networking. Besides basing the NOS on Linux, the company is using the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) specification, so ACS can run on different types of switches.

SAI is an abstraction layer that sits between the hardware's application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and the NOS. With SAI, programmers do not have to write ASIC-specific code to run an NOS on a switch. Instead, they can build the NOS to communicate only with the SAI, and focus on developing applications that will run on the operating system.

Microsoft, Dell, Facebook, Broadcom Corp. and Intel are among the companies that contributed to the development of the SAI. The Open Compute Project (OCP) manages the work.

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