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Cumulus continues the disruption at the Top of Rack

With its Linux OS for the data center, Cumulus Networks addresses a need in the new world of software-defined networks.

In networking, there’s no hotter place to be than in the data center. We’ve seen many of the traditional vendors attacking this marketing with bigger, faster and denser core switches, each trying to one-up the other. However, the startup activity has been at the top of rack (ToR) as these new companies are trying to disrupt the status quo with software-based solutions. Not software combined with hardware, but software running on an off-the-shelf switch from one of the many ODMs that are out there.

This week, Cumulus Networks came out of hiding with its Linux-based operating system designed for data centers where programmability is the differentiator. Cumulus, like other ToR vendors that came before it, such as Pica8, Plexxi and Pluribus, uses a "white box" and dedicates all of its development energy on software, leaving the hardware design to the guys who can do it faster and cheaper than a startup could.

Originally, many of the proponents of software-defined networks (SDNs) advocated a model in which companies buy these white-box switches directly from ODMs, such as Accton and Quanta. But that meant having to write your own operating system and self support. This might work fine if you’re Google, but for the companies that don’t have hundreds of people to throw at every problem, having a high-quality, feature-rich operating system and support could mean the difference between a successful deployment and one fraught with months of troubleshooting.

The Cumulus Linux OS includes all the features needed in today’s data centers, including orchestration capabilities, automation tools, and IPv6 support. Cumulus is also playing the bare metal card and can run directly on the previously mentioned Quanta and Accton, as well as Agema and Foxconn.

The Cumulus Linux OS also works with the network virtualization vendors (NV) like Nicira/VMWare, Midokura and PLUMGrid. One of the fears of the hypervisor-based network virtualization model is that the overlay virtual paths become "invisible" to the traditional network. I’ve interviewed many network managers who are scared to death of the blind spots created from network virtualization. The idea behind the Linux-based OS is that the NV virtualization vendors could work with a company like Cumulus to make NV provisioning easier and provide the necessary visibility to let network managers "see" the virtual networks. In a sense, they’re creating Geordi La Forge glasses for the network. Will this work? In theory, but it depends on the willingness of the NV vendors to work with companies like Cumulus and Pica8.

We’re certainly at an interesting point in the evolution of the data center network, as there’s almost a "perfect storm" happening. We’ve got numerous ToR vendors focusing on building a better software-based mousetrap, industry consortiums like Opendaylight, low-cost switch vendors, the attention of the compute vendors to disrupt the market and a customer base that’s clamoring for change. The question is whether all these parts will work together to create the big wave that Captain Billy Tyne had to try and get his ship over, or if all these vendors work at odds with one another to create a slow-moving wave that could fail to disrupt.

Ultimately, success for all of these new entrants depends on how much support the companies receive from their customers, software partners and hardware vendors. Cumulus has some big backers and lots of hype, but now is when the work begins.

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