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Gartner data center MQ has first software-based networking vendors

Gartner includes software-based networking vendors for the first time in its Magic Quadrant for Data Center Networking. Big Switch Networks and Cumulus Networks make their debut.

For the first time, Gartner has included software-only vendors in its Magic Quadrant for enterprise data center...

networking, a sign that the upstarts are making an impression -- albeit a limited one -- on the market.

Big Switch Networks and Cumulus Networks made their debut in the visionary quadrant of this month's Gartner report, which is widely read in the industry. The analyst firm chose the software-based networking vendors because their strategy of selling networking software separately from the underlying hardware is drawing the attention of enterprises.

"Brite box and disaggregation of hardware and software [are] gaining some traction, as demonstrated by the inclusion in this Magic Quadrant of new vendors focused on software that meets inclusion criteria for the first time," the report said.

The term brite box refers to a supplier giving customers the option of running on its switching hardware another vendor's software. The hardware vendors typically provide support for the whole package. Big Switch and Cumulus have partnerships with the largest brite box suppliers: Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Corporate interest in software-based networking

Big Switch and Cumulus have sparked interest among enterprises exploring a multivendor approach to networking. So-called open networking has become a relevant buying criterion for 96% of large companies, according to Gartner.

Cumulus and Big Switch are at the early stages of possible acceptance in the enterprise data center market. Big Switch's success has been in selling its network packet broker product as a "Trojan horse" to companies willing to try the vendor's technology for a particular application, Gartner said. Cumulus has sold its products to the enterprises that make up 30% of the supplier's roughly 500 paying customers, which are mostly service providers.

Big Switch sells a controller-driven data center networking product called Big Cloud Fabric. BCF provides network orchestration for switches in spine-and-leaf designs.

Cumulus sells its Linux-based network operating system for switches that support the Open Network Install Environment and follows the hardware designs of the Open Compute Project, an open source initiative founded by Facebook.  Cumulus also sells and supports several Edgecore switches running Cumulus software.

Strengths and weaknesses of the software-based networking vendors

Each of the vendors has its strengths, according to Gartner. Big Switch, for example, can run on third-party devices that are from 30% to 60% less than top-brand hardware. That amounts to about a 50% savings in three years' total cost of ownership.

Cumulus can achieve similar savings while also providing native support for a wide range of Linux-based automation software, such as Puppet, Chef and Ansible, Gartner said. Also, the vendor has proven experience in large-scale networks run by financial institutions, carriers and web scale cloud providers.

On the flipside, the software-based networking vendors also carry risks. Big Switch, for example, is a small company with "limited experience in integration with complex enterprise environments with extensive legacy," Gartner said. Also, the vendor uses a proprietary protocol within BCF that prevents integration with third-party switches.

Cumulus also has limited experience in mainstream enterprise networking environments, Gartner said. "The majority of its customers are technologically advanced and forward-leaning, with deep automation and Linux expertise."

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