Nvidia’s aggressive purchases could signal the era of open networking

After buying Cumulus and Mellanox, Nvidia can provide the full stack of elements with support to encourage mainstream-enterprise adoption of open networking.

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Nvidia’s plans to acquire Cumulus Networks, a pioneer of using open source for networking, is a sign that open networking is finally ready for a big leap forward.

Open networking has been tightly coupled with software-defined networking (SDN) because the combination promises to make networks significantly more agile, open and easier to customize to specific needs. Cumulus has been working on it for years, and Nvidia started pushing into it when it acquired Mellanox last week.

The question the Cumulus acquisition raises is “why now”? The concept of open networking has been hotly debated since SDN came into prominence. The concept is sound, and open systems will disrupt the network industry much as it did the compute space. Yet while Linux and open source are wildly successful in the compute industry, open source has yet to take off in networking outside of webscale networks and a handful of large organizations.

Open networking means tighter control

However, the appeal of open networking is widening for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is the acceleration of digital transformation efforts because of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, we work, live, learn and play differently, and that’s changed the way we think of IT.

Open-source networking has had a strong appeal for organizations that want tighter control of the networking stack, whereas traditional networking has been attractive to network engineers that want to minimize risk. The typical switch bought from mainstream network vendors offers the safety net of an integrated solution, while an open-source system requires leaning on a community for support, tools and troubleshooting.

The network plays a key role in digital transformation because it connects data to people to applications to things. In fact, for most organizations, its arguable that the network is the business and tighter, better control over it is necessary to leapfrog the competition. Open network provides that extra level of control.

Linux maturity breeds confidence

There’s also a level of maturity and comfort with open source. With Linux as a server OS, companies could experiment with it on non-mission critical or tier two workloads.  That concept doesn’t exist in networking because there is only one network. There is no tier-two network, which makes playing around with a Linux-based network operating system challenging without putting the business at risk. The open-source community has continued to grow, and there are more tools and capabilities available than ever before.

Companies like Cumulus also provide a degree of comfort for most organizations that don’t have the resources to support open-source networking on their own. Companies like Facebook and Google can, but they can also afford the armies of engineers and software developers needed to can write and support a home-grown NOS. Cumulus provides a Linux based NOS as well as the necessary software and hardware support mainstream enterprises need. It currently on a wide range of hardware vendors including Dell, HPE, Nvidia’s Mellanox products and its own line of Cumulus hardware.  A company like Dell not only sells it but offers all the necessary support, giving customers the benefits of open networking with the service and support they’re used to with a mainstream vendor.

Nvidia as a systems vendor

Nvidia acquiring Mallanox and now Cumulus creates an interesting system play for the company that could speed up the adoption of open networking, as it relates to accelerated computing. Nvidia GPUs have historically been used in turnkey servers that power AI and ML based workloads and those will certainly still exist. In that case, Nvidia will deliver reference architectures like its DGX line of servers.

What’s more interesting is the continued disaggregation of the server. Storage, GPUs, CPUs and memory all exist in pools and are tied together with a network.  That network essentially replaces the server backplane and needs to be resilient and high performance. The combination of Nvidia, Mellanox and Cumulus gives Nvidia control over the entire stack with the potential to deliver a fully integrated and turnkey experience. This should help customers embrace the continued disaggregation of the data center without the associated risk. Open networking is a key part of that as it gives the deploying organization more control.

There are a number of emerging trends in networking, such as open networking, white boxes and SDNs that have been only lightly embraced outside of webscale providers and a few large enterprises. Digital transformation, Linux maturity, a bigger community, and more support combine to change the narrative of open networking.  The data center is on the verge of massive change, and the network must change along with it.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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