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Bare-metal switch industry is shaking up networking

As pioneer bare-metal switch vendors gain momentum, the networking industry is changing. Software and hardware vendors are innovating.

The bare-metal switch industry may or may not take over the networking world, but at least it certainly has changed things.

For a long time, network engineers have had no choice but to work with monolithic switches designed with vertically integrated hardware and software.  While the prospect of SDN and overlay networking herald a dramatic shift to come, in the meantime, most switches remain sealed shut like an iPhone.

Bare-metal switching excites people because it has the potential to shake things up. The disaggregation of hardware and software sets up two parallel industries that can innovate independently of each other. We've seen it in the server industry. And we could see it in the switching industry, too.

There are at least three companies that are trying to make it as software players in a bare-metal world.

Pica8 offers PicOS, a Linux-based operating system that can run on white-box switches built by original design manufacturers (ODM) in Asia. Pica8 claims to have 320 customers. I talked to one recently for a story in our e-zine, Network Evolution, who said he's never going back to vertically integrated switching.                                                   

Meanwhile, Big Switch Networks, another SDN startup, is shipping Big Cloud Fabric, an OpenFlow-based data center SDN product packaged with white-box switches sourced through ODMs. The company says it has booked about $1 million worth of orders for the product, with planned deployments ranging from two to 16 data center racks per customer.

Then there is Cumulus Networks, which last year emerged with Cumulus Linux, yet another switch operating system for bare-metal switches. Initially Cumulus shipped its software on white-box ODM switches, much like Big Switch and Pica8. This summer Cumulus revealed that it powers more than 1 million network ports with its bare-metal software. There is a great deal of speculation that many of those ports are in Amazon Web Services' data centers, due to a very enthusiastic blog post about Cumulus that Amazon engineer James Hamilton wrote last year.

On the hardware innovation side, Dell became the first mainstream OEM switch manufacturer to embrace bare-metal switching when it announced its Open Networking initiative. As part of that move, Dell allows customers to buy some models of its switches with Cumulus Linux. Later it added Big Switch's Switch Light to that program. Now, Dell says it has more than two dozen customers using its Open Networking switches, including Medallia, a customer experience management SaaS provider.

Like most of Dell's bare-metal switch customers, Medallia is using Cumulus Linux as the operating system on the switches it has installed. The Big Switch relationship was announced a few months later and has had less time to get customers in the pipeline.

Medallia is a pure Linux shop on the server side. Given that Cumulus' operating system is basically a Linux distribution, Medallia is able to manage its switches and servers with one orchestration tool, Puppet, which simplifies operations, said Tom Burns, vice president and general manager of Dell Networking.

Aside from innovation, bare-metal switching also changes the economics of networking. White-box switches with third-party software are much cheaper than switches from Cisco and its OEM competitors.

Name-brand switch makers are able to charge higher prices because, frankly, enterprise engineers are risk-averse. Engineers know that switches from Cisco, Juniper et al. are going to work. And if they don't, those vendors have the technical support and global supply chain in place to solve any problems that come up. ODMs don't have that reputation.

Dell's move into bare-metal switching transforms the market. It has the support organization and the supply chain that allay the fears of many engineers. Dell's bare-metal switches may be more expensive than white-box switches, but they're also cheaper than Dell's vertically integrated switches.

"Our estimates when we announced Open Networking was that we would be 20% to 30% more expensive than white-box ODMs but also 20% to 30% less than our list price," Burns said. "That has proven out to be right."

Dell will continue to expand its bare-metal switching portfolio. "When we announce refreshes in current platforms or new platforms -- particularly in the aggregation and top-of-rack switches -- all of these platforms will be based on this strategy," Burns said. "Customers will have the choice to support Dell operating system software, Cumulus software, Big Switch software and maybe a third or even a fourth option."

As part of this expansion, Burns said Dell is working on a standard bootloader across all its switches for a simplified install environment that can support the various operating systems the switches must work with. Dell has not committed to using the Open Network Install Environment, an open source bootloader that was contributed to the Open Compute Project's bare-metal switch initiative, but "we're actively participating with some of the larger customers in the Open Compute Project and having conversations on that subject," Burns said.

Dell's move to address how various operating systems boot up on its switches is the first tangible example of an OEM switch manufacturer innovating in hardware to support disaggregated software. It won't be the last.

This was last published in October 2014

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