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Will enterprises adopt SONiC OS and disrupt proprietary WAN?

As a cloud-native modular architecture focused on network disaggregation, the SONiC OS can offer several benefits for enterprises, especially at the network edge.

Open technology usually entails like-minded yet independent entities collaborating and sharing ideas. By swapping specifications and other intellectual property, they hope to stimulate innovation, reduce complexity and disrupt long-established market norms.

Open source software has been around for a while. It may have had an air of radical anti-establishment cool about 20 years ago, but now it's widely accepted. Yet, in the world of WAN, openness has not caught on in a big way. In the realm of routing and switching, proprietary technology still reigns.

This situation, however, could change with the emergence of Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC), an open source network OS released by Microsoft in 2016 and handed over to the Open Compute Project in 2017. For Microsoft, the SONiC OS was conceived to create economies and efficiencies in the data centers where its Azure cloud lives.

Since 2017, SONiC has popped up in the data centers of other cloud players, notably Chinese hyperscalers Alibaba and Tencent. Increasingly, SONiC is also used with tier 2 cloud operators, as well as certain telcos and cable companies. The SONiC club now has about 850 members, including many large enterprises.

SONiC, Software for Open Networking in the Cloud

Could SONiC become mainstream?

As 2020 dawned, SONiC's challenge was how to mature from a well-regarded but somewhat fringe OS to something more mainstream where it could disrupt the vested interests of the proprietary world.

Independent analyst firm IDC sees a big future for SONiC in the sphere of corporate connectivity, saying it has the potential to become the Linux of networking. IDC's research vice president of data center networks Brad Casemore said SONiC has already achieved the status of leading open source standard bearer for network disaggregation, as well as the modular decoupling and composability of individual software functions.

Right now, he said, SONiC's natural habitat is in Ethernet switches in hyperscale data centers, but it could extend to data center leaf-spine networks, converged networks and WANs. In the coming years, he added, SONiC could be featured in 5G and telco-cloud edge environments.

"SONiC is not a commercial product per se, because it's open," Casemore said. "But, if you're a vendor, you can build a lot of value around it."

Dell and other vendors, for example, have adopted SONiC, while telcos and cable multiple system operators are supporting it in their way.

"I'd expect to see continued adoption," Casemore said. But why did openness take so long to get to networking?

"Sometimes the WAN looks like the last mainframe, with its own interfaces and its own hardware," Casemore said. "Now, networking is driven by the hyperscalers and the realization is dawning that there's another world out there and it makes a lot of sense. It's long overdue -- but it's happening."

SONiC at the network edge

Dave Maltz leads Microsoft Azure's physical network team and its SONiC developments. He said he's excited by what he sees coming next.

"The pandemic put a crimp in everybody's plans," he said. "But we are continuing to see good adoption across the large cloud companies. In the enterprise space, we are still a bit more in a holding pattern than I would have hoped, but we're making good progress."

Critical mass adoption of SONiC is already evident among hyperscalers, he added, while many enterprises are continuing their pilot programs. Over the next year, Maltz said he expects to see more enterprise interest and action, especially in areas like SONiC at the network edge where Microsoft has started to see some early deployments.

Maltz also said he is seeing SONiC make progress in the world of Kubernetes and expects to see wide usage there soon. Microsoft has encouraged people to join the SONiC working groups to track future developments. People can contribute as advocates or join the testing effort.

The importance of remaining open

Kevin Deierling, senior vice president at Nvidia, is also optimistic about the SONiC platform. Currently, he said, SONiC has a "relatively narrow set of capabilities" that align well with certain use cases, primarily in Microsoft Azure and other clouds.

"The beauty of an open platform is you can develop it and add new features, and we believe that will happen," Deierling said. "It's important for that reason that it remains open, and never gets locked to a single vendor."

Perhaps SONiC's most defining moment in 2020 came with the announcement by Dell of Enterprise SONiC Distribution. By adding more features and tweaking the design of SONiC, Dell seems to have positioned it for the next stage of enterprise evolution.

Ihab Tarazi, CTO and senior vice president at Dell Technologies Networking and Solutions, sees the move as the culmination of a long process. Dell has been investing in SONiC for about four years, working with Microsoft from the beginning stages.

"The idea was to define a new architecture that is modular, meaning you don't have to use all of it, but just pieces if you want. No other operating system for networks is like this," Tarazi said. The second important part was the system had to be cloud-native, designed specifically for cloud applications and the cloud user.

"It had to be open for the developer to use whatever tools they wanted and to make any changes they needed to. A typical OS would have the entire stack fully integrated. With SONiC, we disaggregated all of that. Every customer or partner can customize their own management layer and telemetry and add whatever fabrics they need."

Tarazi admitted the networking industry was going to need time to absorb this kind of change. At Dell, the company implemented its own version of SONiC, adding the interfaces that managers are used to, including command-line interfaces (CLIs) and APIs.

Proprietary tech still needed

Now, the SONiC OS is garnering interest among small and medium-sized enterprise WANs, Tarazi said. Additionally, according to Tarazi, about half of the 10 biggest telcos in the world are working with SONiC.

"You can say with confidence that within the next year or two SONiC will become the Linux operating system for networks," Tarazi said.

Like Microsoft's Maltz, Tarazi expects activity over the next year with SONiC at the edge, especially involving the next generation of smart network interface cards (NICs), which could act as a network switch inside servers.

Smart NIC use cases, he said, cover several areas, including edge, wireless, 5G, virtual switches and storage disaggregation. Over the next 12 months, Tarazi said he expects more protocols and capabilities, especially with large core switches, which are now proprietary.

Despite all the optimism, Tarazi said he sees open networks running alongside proprietary networks for a long time.

"Networking is a very hard thing to change, unlike servers," he said. "There are some things that proprietary solutions work well for."

More work ahead

Mansour Karam, vice president of products at Juniper Networks, is another SONiC backer and collaborator. The time for open networks is finally here, he said.

"We've been hearing about open networks for many years. People expected it to take over, but that hasn't happened yet. The big change has come over the past year with SONiC. Manageability and capability have improved to make it a viable choice not just for cloud providers but also for the enterprise."

Karam said Apstra, the company he founded that's been acquired by Juniper, has been trying to take SONiC to market and recently received its first purchase order for the service. Different customers have different needs, he added, but SONiC can help. Some companies want low latency, while others want the lowest possible cost.

"You choose your hardware and run SONiC on top," he said. "Separation gives you a lot of flexibility to build best-of-breed data center solutions."

Karam said he sees the roadmap for SONiC as exciting but admits that a lot or work still needs to be done to further existing efforts.

"It needs to support more and more capabilities that are relevant to the enterprise," he said. "We want to see more and more vendors embrace it. The road ahead is clear but very busy."

About the author
Guy Matthews is editor of NetReporter, which is part of the online content from global tech events specialist NetEvents. He has more than 25 years of experience creating and managing content on telecom and IT topics. NetReporter focuses on areas such as SD-WAN, cloud-native networking, network security, data center developments, IoT and 5G.

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