Start-up readies network-optimized Linux for data centers

Cumulus' network OS fits with trend by Google, Facebook to build software-defined data centers based on commodity switches

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Cumulous CEO/Co-Founder JR Rivers's pedigree includes having worked at Cisco and Google

Start-up Cumulus Networks this week has emerged with a Linux network operating system designed for programmable data centers like the ones Google and Facebook are building.

The company’s Cumulus Linux OS operating system includes IPv4 and IPv6 routing, plus data center and network orchestration hooks. Much like OpenFlow for independent, software-defined control of network forwarding, Cumulus Linux is intended to run on commodity network hardware and bring open source extensibility to high capacity data centers.

Linux did the same for data center servers 15 years ago, Cumulus officials state, and ushered in widely-used innovations like virtualization. But networking has lagged the trend – advancements like software-defined networking (SDN) and programmability are very recent, and strategies from the major vendors are typically tied tightly to their own OSes and hardware.

The Cisco ONE plan, for example, is tied to Cisco IOS, IOS-XR and NX-OS.

[WE DO SDNs TOO! Cisco ends the SDN suspense]

Cumulus Linux is designed to benefit large data centers like those at Google, which designs its own networking hardware from off-the-shelf parts to save money, and customize and simplify its operations. Cumulus CEO and Co-founder JR Rivers knows all about that, having steered much of Google’s direction toward custom network hardware after he left Cisco – the first time -- in 2005.

Indeed, Cumulus says its network operating system is intended to allow customers to take advantage of the price-performance of commodity hardware based on merchant silicon, as well as new generation “software-defined” and native Linux-based operations and automation toolsets. The company’s partners include “bare-metal” switch vendors Quanta, Accton and Agema, and component supplier Broadcom; and company officials say Cumulus Linux allows customers to use common Linux-based automation and monitoring tools, such as Chef, Puppet, Ganglia and Monit.

Cumulus Linux also works with overlay network technologies such as VMware’s Nicira network virtualization. In addition, it allows for routing between physical and virtual servers, and boasts single script automation across all networking hardware, the company says.data centers.

The company is going after a 10G and 40G Ethernet market that is poised, Cumulus says, to experience 34% and 115% compounded annual growth in ports, respectively, for the five-year period of 2012 to 2017. Cumulus is one of several start-ups to emerge of late that’s focused on software-defined networking (SDN) and/or

Analysts see Cumulus Linux applicable initially to large-scale data centers at Web 2.0 shops and cloud-service providers. Cumulus also plans to pursue Fortune 500 companies, but that might be a longer sell given the legacy of their environments.

“Cumulus… has given careful thought to [cloud provider] customer requirements, both architectural and operational, and to the ecosystem and value chain that needs to be in place to serve those customers,” says Brad Casemore of IDC. “The degree of success the company ultimately enjoys will depend greatly on how much support the company receives from its hardware and software partners.”

Cumulus Linux is already in use at cloud providers DreamHost and Fastly, a number of enterprises and in a “large-scale commercial deployment” at “one of the world’s biggest” cloud providers, Cumulus says.

Rivers says Cumulus’ strategy mirrors and complements that of Facebook’s Open Compute Project, which recently announced plans to design an open source switch. Such a switch needs an open source operating system, one of Cumulus’ investors reasons.

Cumulus was founded by Rivers, CTO Nolan Leake and veteran networking engineers from Cisco and VMware in 2010. The company has raised over $15 million in venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Battery Ventures, Peter Wagner and VMware founders Ed Bugnion, Diane Greene and Mendel Rosenblum . Greene and Andreessen Horowitz also invested in Nicira, which VMware bought for $1.26 billion.

Cumulus Linux is commercially available now through an annual subscription-pricing model that includes support and maintenance, and scales based on the switch performance capacity.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 25 years, 21 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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