Switches coming out this year will drive open networking forward

Cumulus is introducing hardware and Barefoot's chips will start shipping in products

Two moves by open networking vendors this week are likely to chip a little bit more off the monolith of proprietary, appliance-like equipment that still moves most packets around enterprise data centers.

On Thursday, network OS supplier Cumulus Networks introduced turnkey switches based on standard hardware from Edgecore Networks running Cumulus software. They’re designed to allow customers who are new to open networking to get started quickly and easily.

Earlier in the week, on the cutting edge of the movement, Barefoot Networks announced that Edgecore and another Taiwan-based manufacturer called WNC would start shipping switches that use the company’s fully programmable chips.

Open networking separates software from hardware, just like open computing frees hardware from a specific OS, so engineers can have more flexibility to build networks as they see fit. It began in the webscale data centers of companies like Facebook and Google, where large technology teams deploy custom-built switches and frequently update them to meet changing needs using a DevOps model.

The concept hasn’t made that many inroads into average enterprises, which tend to have less DevOps expertise and rely on traditional all-in-one routers and switches from vendors like Cisco Systems. Cumulus’s introduction of Cumulus Express, the company’s first hardware products, will help those enterprises get their feet wet with open networking, Cumulus CEO Josh Leslie said in an interview.

A key benefit of open networking is the ability to choose software from one source and hardware from another, but many companies aren’t ready to orchestrate that kind of deployment.

“We don’t want to ask them to think about all these choices on Day Zero,” Leslie said.

Cumulus’s move is in tune with the market, where open networking hasn’t really penetrated average companies, according to IDC analyst Brad Casemore.

“You’ve got a lot of enterprises who are very concerned about the integration,” he said. “It should bring over a few more. I don’t know whether it’s going to turn the tide in a huge way.”

Some Cumulus partners, including Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, already sell hardware that runs the company’s software. Cumulus Express isn’t intended to undercut or replace those products, Leslie said. He expects most Express buyers to adopt other vendors’ hardware later on as they get comfortable with open networking and start taking advantage of the choices it gives them.

The Cumulus Express portfolio includes switches with 1Gbps (bit-per-second) to 100Gbps interfaces. They come with pre-activated license keys, a list of certified cables and optics for those ports, and 24x7 global support. It all comes in one purchase order.

Programmable switching chips, coming from Barefoot and other vendors like Cavium and Innovium, are taking the flexibility of open networking all the way down to the silicon.

Barefoot, which made a splash last year when it announced fully programmable chips with industry-leading performance, is about to see some of those chips hit the market in open networking gear. Edgecore and WNC plan to start shipping 100Gbps switches based on Barefoot’s Tofino chips in the first quarter of this year.

The Tofino silicon can be programmed to forward traffic using any protocol as long as what comes out of the ports looks like Ethernet packets. This could give developers the freedom to use future protocols that overcome the limitations of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

In addition, Barefoot calls Tofino the world’s fastest networking chip, running at 6.5Tbps. That’s good enough for 32-port and 65-port 100Gbps switches from Edgecore, shipping as evaluation units this quarter. WNC will have a 48-port switch this quarter and a 65-port system starting in the second quarter.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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