The vestiges of traditional networking are gradually falling. Traditional network vendors have long held that proprietary hardware coupled with proprietary software deliver the best performance and value to customers. The concept is slowly giving way to a disaggregated model.
A couple of years ago, Dell announced the ability to run alternative operating systems on their hardware. A few weeks ago, Juniper announced the intent to allow Junos to run on white box hardware and virtualized environments. Now, Dell has announced a similar disaggregation of their network from their hardware platform. But, what exactly does this mean for Dell's enterprise customers?
A standard Linux kernel now powers Dell's OS 10 network operating system. By leveraging a standard Linux Kernel, Dell is offering some similar advantages that Juniper promises with Junos built on a Linux kernel. Customers can manage Dell OS 10 devices as they would any other Linux distribution. The options include installing DevOps style tools such as Puppet and Chef. Customers can leverage these tools to automate the provisioning of network resources, reducing the silo between the network and server teams. Switches look like any other Linux node.
Advanced use cases
Companies such as Arista Networks and Cumulus Networks have long provided the ability to run standard Linux applications under their solutions. Dell is offering some flexibility by supporting Open Compute standards. I'm much more interested in the possibilities around future integration with solutions like VMware NSX.
The ability to run Linux code directly on switch hardware may eliminate many of the pain points attributed to network virtualization solutions such as NSX. NSX provides a powerful platform to implement network segmentation and automation. However, the benefits are limited to traffic that flows through virtualized infrastructure. For example, it isn't possible for NSX to filter traffic between two physical hosts. If a customer wanted to implement layer 2 filtering between two hosts, the network engineer must implement a physical layer 2 firewall. It's cost prohibitive to scale physical layer 2 filtering.
With the ability run Linux code directly on a switch, VMware and Dell could team up to run NSX firewall code directly on a switch. In simple implementations where there's one hardware port per physical host, NSX layer 2 filtering could be applied to physical hosts. The logical limitation is the processing power of the physical switch. From my view, integrating x86 and DPDK technology could overcome these challenges for most customers.
A second pain point is the management of the physical underlay in a virtualized infrastructure. Unless you are deploying technology such as Cisco ACI, network managers must use separate tools to manage the physical and virtual network. With the virtual network code running on the physical switch, network vendors could simplify the management of the physical and virtual network.
As mentioned earlier, Dell isn't the first network company with the idea to disaggregate software from hardware. Arista and storage provider COHO Data have long offered a network aware storage appliance. Also, Nuage Networks, now part of Nokia, has provided a hardware platform that runs x86 workloads for several years. However, Dell has the advantage of a huge distribution channel that will expand with the purchase of EMC and VMware.
What do you think?
What other use cases do you consider candidates for commodity Linux running on physical switches? Is this the future of networking, or a wild shot in the dark by Dell? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 15 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. His areas of expertise include virtualization, networking, and storage solutions for Fortune 500 organizations. He holds a BA in computing and a MS in information technology from DePaul University.