Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Sunday, October 2, 2022

Dell Bares Switch Metal To Other Network Operating Systems 

When you look at a switch, you are looking at the vestiges of a proprietary past that many of the largest companies in the world want to do away with. Intel and Broadcom supply most of the Ethernet switch ASICs used for top-of-rack switches today, and hyperscale datacenter operators and large enterprises have been pushing for switch makers to let their hardware loose and allow it to run different – and maybe even open source – network operating systems.

Dell is the first of the major switch vendors to move in that direction, and it takes a certain amount of bravery to do so. When IBM ceded the PC operating system to Microsoft on the original PC, look at how that turned out for Big Blue. IBM is out of the PC and its related server business, and Microsoft is minting billions with its Windows Server operating system.

Dell is obviously hoping that by giving customers a choice of network operating systems it can goose its hardware sales against rivals Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Hewlett-Packard, and others who will not necessarily be keen on opening up their network gear to rival software. Until they absolutely have to, of course.

Open networking, as its champion Facebook has made clear, is about more than being allowed multiple options for operating systems on a switch or a router. It is also about being able to make changes to these software environments and to work collaboratively with vendors and other users to more rapidly implement changes.

"As these silos start to break down, Dell is in a position to provide a single point of contact without necessarily locking customers in," Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management and m for Dell's networking division, explains to EnterpriseTech. "This will allow for very rapid innovation based on standard APIs. You don't have to wait for a black-box vendor to come up with features. If they code to the Linux APIs, they can add things like support for Chef and Puppet. We find that the early adopters in this space – the hyperscale cloud operators, the big banks – with skilled IT staffs are ready to do this and carry forward this model."


Force 10, the networking company that Dell bought for an undisclosed sum back in July 2011, was one of the first switch makers to go to merchant silicon rather than using homegrown chips. (That was around five years ago.) So it is not a surprise that Dell's networking division is the first of the tier one switch players to embrace open networking. As part of the Open Compute Summit extravaganza in San Jose, Dell announced that it was partnering with Cumulus Networks to put the company's Open Network Installer Environment (ONIE) on its switches and also would allow for Cumulus Linux, an alternative to Dell's own Force 10 OS, to be installed on two of its most popular switches.

These include the S4810, which has 40 10 Gb/sec ports and four 40 Gb/sec uplinks, and the S6000, which has 32 ports running at 40 Gb/sec. The ability to use the ONIE loader and other network operating systems will follow, says Joshipura, adding he fully expects some of them to be homegrown. (Incidentally, the Force 10 operating system is over a decade old and is not based on Linux, but rather a kernel and stack that was inspired by the IOS network operating system from Cisco Systems. It was initially designed for supporting large-scale web applications and now has all of the REST APIs that network admins and application developers want.)

"This is the way the megascale datacenters have been behaving for quite some time now," explains JR Rivers, co-founder and CEO at Cumulus Networks. "Two of the major ones are at the point where they swap out software on top of hardware at will, and the other two have big programs in place to get to that same point. It is almost a foregone conclusion there. Big enterprises are getting to the point where they want the same things to occur, but they are looking for a viable supply chain."

Cumulus Networks was founded in December 2010. Nolan Leake is one of the founders, and he has worked on early server virtualization projects at VMware, on server clustering at 3Leaf Systems, and research at Nuovo Systems, which was acquired by Cisco Systems in May 2008 as a building block for its "California" Unified Computing System converged systems. Rivers, the company's other founder, worked on the UCS platform as well at Cisco, and also designed network interface cards at 3Com back in the day and worked on Google's custom networks for its massive datacenters between those jobs. Diane Greene, Ed Bugnion, and Mendel Rosenblum, the founders of server virtualization juggernaut VMware, were early investors in Cumulus Networks, and venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz, Battery Ventures, and Sequoia Capital have kicked in money as well. The company raised $15 million in its first round in August 2012 and $36 million in its second round just this month.

Cumulus came out of stealth mode in June 2013, but actually had customers using the Cumulus Linux 1.0 network operating system back in October 2012. Release 1.5 of its net OS came out in July 2013, and last fall as part of the Open Networking initiative at the Open Compute Project, Cumulus open sourced the ONIE installer so switch makers could have a consistent way to deploy different operating systems on switches. By November 2013, Cumulus had over 10,000 switches running Cumulus Linux in production.

Release 2.0, which just came out this month, has support for Broadcom's Trident-II network ASIC and its on-chip VXLAN virtual overlay for Layer 3 networks. (VXLAN is, like NVGRE, a means of making collections of Layer 2 networks linked by Layer 3 switches or routers look like one big virtual network. By doing this, you can live migrate virtual machines across that virtual network.) Cumulus Linux supports earlier Trident and Trident+ chipsets from Broadcom as well as a number of other Broadcom ASICs such as Helix, Triumph, and Apollo.

Intel's Fulcrum network ASICs are not yet supported by Cumulus Linux, and with Intel being a key supplier of merchant network chips, this is important. It would be fun to see Cumulus Linux hacked onto Cisco or Juniper or HP iron as well, much as Linux was ported to RISC and mainframe machines in the late 1990s, often without the tacit approval of system vendors.

"Intel is driving hard in the market – clearly the type of partner we need to work with," says Rivers. But he would not confirm that any such partnership is imminent.

Cumulus is, he said, working with a bunch of different ASIC partners to try to expand support for its network operating system. Switches made by Quanta, Penguin Computing, Acton, and Agema have been certified to run Cumulus Linux. (You can see the hardware compatibility list here.)

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