Cumulus Redux: And Then There Was One: Open Networking’s New Enterprise Reality

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In my last missive I talked about what the recent Cumulus acquisition by Mellanox means for the open networking market as a whole, especially with respect to the data center vs. the enterprise. While in that piece I had a think on the why’s, wherefores, and likely outcomes of the acquisition, here I want to lay out, in no uncertain terms, where I believe the flurry of recent M&A activity leaves enterprise customers who want to upgrade and modernize their infrastructure to open networking solutions as a way to solve their spiraling networking problems.

In a nutshell, if you want an open network for hyperscale and large-enterprise data centers, your options in terms of software are currently Cumulus (now wholly a data center play, as my last post makes clear), Big Switch/Arista (with a cloud twist), the increasingly popular — non-hedgehog — SONIC, and OS10 from Dell Technologies. But if you want to extend the open network concept and business model to the wider enterprise, meaning large campus and access edge networks, you’ve now got exactly one proven open networking software option: Pica8’s PICOS® network operating system (NOS). 

Before you accuse me of succumbing to bluster and braggadocio, allow me to offer a bit of background and a few supporting facts.

Data center vs. enterprise networking

First, the data center market is markedly different from enterprise networks and enterprise workflows, so it’s no surprise that Cumulus, Big Switch, et al., pretty much stuck to their data center roots before being acquired. Data centers are, for the most part, extremely homogeneous — especially when you get into the hyperscale and large enterprise realms. And the requirements are fairly simple, with each node being a short logical — if not physical — hop from one another.

That’s why data centers for years have been able to employ the two-tier leaf-spine architecture, rather than the three-tier design that still dominates the wider enterprise. Unlike enterprise networks, data centers also have the luxury of dedicated out-of-band management networks that simplify automation, making features like zero-touch provisioning a relative breeze.

It’s a different story in large enterprise campus and access networks. Each is essentially custom-built, with a mix of switch models acquired through the years. Designs and workflows are far more complex, having to account for traffic coming and going from far-flung buildings, cities and countries. They must also incorporate a raft of technologies that do not appear in the data center, including network access control (NAC), network address translation (NAT), multivendor VoIP systems, and all manner of end user and wireless devices, most of which now need to be supported by one or more of the various flavors of power over Ethernet (PoE). Could this possibly get any more complicated? Hardly.
An open approach to addressing enterprise complexity
In short, enterprise networks involve far more layers of complexity than those present in a data center network. But Pica8 accepted the challenge to meet complexity head-on by simplifying enterprise network deployment and operations.

First, it’s important to note that Pica8 is the only open NOS vendor with thousands of switches currently deployed in production campus and access networks of Fortune 500 companies (even Fortune 50). So PICOS is proven technology that large businesses, state and local government, and educational institutions are all using today to build high-performance, reliable networks that support their critical functions.

Pica8 is also the only open networking vendor with an automation framework for campus and access networks that allows them to be constructed at scale with white box and brite box switches. We started by addressing the lack of an out-of-band management network with our AmpCon™ automation framework software, which enables enterprise users to emulate many data center management functions, including ZTP. That’s no mean feat when you’re talking about deploying switches in hundreds of locations across a campus, city, state or the like. Unlike a data center, support in these remote locations is thin, and, frequently, non-existent. We recognized that and so offered up an easy-to-use and easy-to-customize GUI-based solution that scales to thousands of open networking switches at — almost — no cost at all.  

Another first: Pica8 is the only networking vendor of any kind — not just “open” networking vendors — to have a fully integrated Layer 2/Layer 3/Software-defined Networking (SDN) solution. This means you can deploy traditional L2/L3 traffic as well as SDN traffic on the same switch port — not just the same switch. We think SDN is — or will be — every bit as critical in the enterprise as it is in the data center, enabling new levels of security and control. PICOS is ready when you are.

We’re also the only open networking vendor that has plugged the critical missing piece of open networking’s “portfolio,” which is how to replace enterprise switch stacks and large chassis switches with white/brite box-based solutions. From a software perspective, these are actually the same problem, which is how to do port aggregation. Well, we solved that, too, with PICOS, so now the entire enterprise switching infrastructure can be modernized, even the chassis switches, either gradually or all at once as PICOS is fully backward compatible. 

And, with PICOS, you can also build out your port aggregation using any variety of switches you choose. They don’t have to be all the same switch models, or even from the same hardware vendors. That’s what “open” networking is all about — freedom of choice. If your chassis or switch stacks are getting long in the tooth, take a look at the new open alternative. With switches from one of our hardware partners like Dell Technologies, you’ll likely be surprised at the bang you can get from relatively few bucks.

Open network bonus: Lower TCO

Which brings me to a final point: cost savings. From the start, this has always been one of the big attractions of open, white box networking. You could get the same hardware — and I mean exactly the same, not just similar — as you would from the name-brand vendors, but at far less cost.

In the early days, you likely had to sacrifice some features and function. The data center players were first to address that issue – because they had fewer features and functions to incorporate. But I can now say with confidence that, for around $10,000, Pica8 offers automation and lifecycle management capabilities equivalent to those for which you’d pay the likes of Cisco $500,000 to $1 million. On top of that, you still get the roughly 50% CapEx and OpEx savings that white box switching and open networking have always offered.

Legacy networking hardware vendors saw what happened to their revenue streams in the data center with the advent of open networking there and are now desperately pivoting to extract software revenue from the enterprise before the same wave overtakes them there. Problem is, software is not their oeuvre. But it is ours.

If there’s one thing the recent open networking acquisitions have made clear, it’s that major players in the broader networking market clearly recognize the value of open networking technology, particularly as it relates to SDN and creating fabrics. It stands to reason data center players would be the first cab off the stand, because the technology is more mature in the data center.

Open networking is enterprise-ready

But the lesson for the enterprise is, open networking is also just as ready to meet your needs in the rest of the network. Pica8 installed its first switches in 2012, so this is now mature technology — at least for us. From automated provisioning and configuration to SDN and switch stack/chassis alternatives, we’ve got you covered.

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