If you’re a traditional networking vendor (think Cisco, Juniper and the like) then you’re staring down the barrel of a technology shift that threatens your very existence. Software Defined Networking (SDN) is essentially a notion of allowing software to control networking within a datacenter. It is analogous to server virtualizations in that it adds a software layer sitting on top of hardware and abstracts the control away from that hardware. SDN is a similar threat to the proprietary networking vendors as virtualization has been to the traditional server manufacturers. A few months ago I wrote about what this burning platform looks like for Cisco – frankly it’s scary, and has the traditional vendors worried.
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One of the more exciting vendors leading the SDN charge is Cumulus Networks. I covered their launch previously and was pretty bullish about them. For those who haven’t come across the company, Cumulus has created a generally open source networking operating system. That’s the flexible and open software part of the SDN deal and that matches the multitude of hardware vendors that are offering flexible platforms that are agnostic to the software that sits on top of them. Add those two things together and you have the potential to seriously undermine the incumbent providers. It’s the start of an open source networking ecosystem and portends of things to come for the existing vendors. As I said when Cumulus launched:
For too long the networking world has been artificially constrained by proprietary solutions that tie specific hardware to deeply proprietary software. The launch of Cumulus Linux changes all that and could well be the point which heralds a blossoming of innovation in the networking world fueled by open hardware and open software. In the way that Linus Torvalds gave users alternatives to the proprietary hegemony, so too could a best-of-breed ecosystem in networking platforms break open this cozy world.
According to Cumulus CEO JR Rivers, the company has gained 100 customers since its June launch – a validation both of Cumulus’ own offering, but more importantly of the value organization see in disaggregating networking hardware from the software that runs it. Cumulus takes another big step today with the announcement of a partnership between itself and Dell that sees Dell offer Cumulus as one of the options sitting on top of Dell’s networking hardware. Interestingly this is the first time that Dell has offered bare-metal networking equipment to customers – it would seem to be a smart move for Dell who, having seen the writing on the wall, realize it’s better to be at least part of a deal, than to be closed out of the deal altogether. This shouldn’t be understated, Dell is giving SDN the same level of credibility it gives server virtualization by giving users the choice about the abstraction layer that lies on top of their hardware.
In terms of cost savings (and, after all, open source solutions are predicated on some economic advantages) pricing on the Cumulus-run kit is around 25% lower than for boxes running proprietary operating systems – not a bad benefit given the other positives Cumulus brings (no lock in, flexibility etc).
This is interesting on a number of levels, it’s a big coup for Cumulous, a small (if packed full of heavy hitters) startup. It’s an interesting move from a newly private (and hence unconstrained by short term shareholder demands) Dell. Most importantly though, it’s an indication of the future for networking and networking vendors. There are no doubt some uncomfortable folks in the legacy players today, wondering how quickly this burning platform will remain standing.