Software may be eating the world, but Cumulus Networks is still keen on hardware

Well, that’s a jarring change. Former pure-play networking software vendor Cumulus Networks is jumping into the hardware space.

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I’ve been following Cumulus Networks almost since its inception. The company was co-founded by J.R. Rivers, something of a legend in the networking space. Cumulus Networks’ raisan d’etre was to provide an open source operating system (eponymously called Cumulus Linux) that organizations could install on different networking hardware devices and, in doing so, gain all the benefits of software-defined networking (SDN) without any of the hassles of proprietary and locked-down software.

It was a compelling story (at least for this commentator). And given the credibility that Rivers bought to the table, I was sold.

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Then a year or so ago, I was a little surprised to hear Rivers was replaced as CEO by another Cumulus Networks staffer, Josh Leslie. I surmised at the time that this might have as much to do with investor demands for growth as anything else, but I did state some concern as to the future direction for the business and whether Rivers would remain involved.

Well, in terms of my concerns about Rivers, it seems I was wrong. He is still firmly ensconced in the CTO role at Cumulus Networks. As for the strategic direction, however, news today shows some things have certainly changed.

Cumulus Networks moves into the hardware arena

You see Cumulus Networks, the company that was all about disrupting the status quo through the allure of a software-only solution, announced it is moving into the hardware arena. Cumulus Express is its first-ever, turnkey deployment offering. It includes the existing Cumulus Linux, as well as 1G through 100G hardware platforms and compatible cables and optics.

Cumulus Networks is touting this as the industry’s best combination of high-performance switching hardware and open networking software. But since the company is now a hardware and software vendor, that claim will see some push back from the likes of Cisco and Juniper.

While the software-only story was one that—at least at an abstract level—made total sense, the reality is organizations want complete solutions. Sure, some customers have existing hardware that they want to slap Cumulus Linux on top of, but for everyone else, the ability to buy hardware and software from a single vendor is key. In terms of the benefits that Cumulus Networks says Express brings to customers, the company is pushing the following:

  • A single source for modern networking needs, including switch, optics, cables and Cumulus Linux pre-loaded.
  • Accelerated time to first production with an out-of-the-box, next-generation networking experience, including pre-activated license key and a list of certified cables/optics, making setup straightforward.
  • Superior support with integrated 24x7 global availability, giving customers an extended team to help maintain and grow their data center operations.
  • A simple, streamlined ordering process through one single purchase order for the entire package.
  • Easy to run by minimizing switch/optics incompatibility issues.

But the most important thing is that it reduces the friction that Cumulus Networks sees in sales conversations, and given the background of Leslie—its current CEO who was the former head sales dude at the company—that would seem to be a key requirement.

In another interesting occurrence, Cumulus Networks is obviously proactively avoiding the comments that this move shows a lack of traction for their software-only offering by giving an operating update. According to the company, Cumulus has increased year-over-year bookings by more than 200 percent in 2016 with more than 500 customers deploying Cumulus Networks technology, including 28 percent of the Fortune 50. New customers include Verizon, Athena Health and Outbrain.

The company has also been active when it comes to industry partnerships. It fortified its enterprise solutions with the Cumulus OpenStack ML2 plugin, VMware NSX vSphere certification, and the Solutions Marketplace, which includes more than 50 community-led solutions from automation to network services. Cumulus Networks also partnered with Mellanox, expanding silicon and system choice.   

Finally, the company has been hiring. As well as the CEO/CTO change, the senior team has been bolstered with the recent appointment of Andrew R. Harding as vice president of product, who has deep networking experience from leading enterprises, Jim McNicholas as CFO, Ron DiBiase as vice president of sales, and Ami Badani as vice president of marketing.

My POV

This is all about optics. With regards to that, I am comforted by the fact that Rivers is still on board and that the company has seen growth along its original strategy. Moving into hardware is a big gamble, and it muddies the waters in terms of competitive positioning and differentiation. It’ll be interesting to reflect upon this move in 12 or 18 months.

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