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Meet SONiC, the new NOS (definitely not the same as the old NOS)

News Analysis
Oct 08, 20204 mins
NetworkingOpen Source

The open-source SONiC network operating system has the potential to become 'the Linux of networking,' experts say.

Neon world networking
Credit: Thinkstock

The open-sourced Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC) network operating system is rapidly growing a community of developers and users that could change the way many large enterprises, hyperscalers and service providers run networks.

The Linux-based NOS, developed and open sourced by Microsoft in 2017, decouples network software from the underlying hardware and lets it run on switches and ASICs from multiple vendors while supporting a full suite of network features such as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), remote direct memory access (RDMA), QoS, and  other Ethernet/IP technologies.

One of the keys to SONiC is its the switch-abstraction Interface, which defines an API to provide a vendor-independent way of controlling forwarding elements such as a switching ASIC, an NPU, or a software switch in a uniform manner, according to the SONiC GitHub community site.

The community around SONiC has been growing and includes Dell, Arista, Nokia, Apstra, Alibaba, Comcast, Cisco, Broadcom, Juniper, Edgecore, Innovium, Nvidia-Mellanox and VMware. SONiC underpins Microsoft’s Azure networking services. According to IDC, a SONiC data-center switch market will be worth $2 billion by 2024.

“SONiC has the potential to become the ‘Linux of networking’ as the SONiC community now has more than 850 members, including major cloud providers, service providers, silicon and component suppliers, as well as network hardware OEMs and ODMs,” Brad Casemore, IDC’s Research Vice President, Datacenter Networks, said during a SONiC industry roundtable this week, entitled “The SONiC Evolution through Networking Revolution.”

SONiC has emerged as the leading open-source standard bearer for network disaggregation, as well as more recently the modular decoupling and composability of individual software functions, Casemore said.

Casemore said SONiC is currently deployed primarily on top-of-rack Ethernet switches in cloud-scale datacenters, but the industry support it has received and the features it continues to add are helping extend its reach not only to leaf-spine networks in cloud datacenters but also to converged networks, WAN, and other routing use cases.

IDC said it expects SONiC to increasingly figure in 5G and telco-cloud edge environments over the next several years, especially with the rollout of the full 5G technology stack and as use cases for 5G in the enterprise are validated.

One of the driving forces behind SONiC is its relative simplicity, proponents say.

“Microsoft built a heterogeneous network using equipment and software from multiple vendors which is great because it gave us access to the newest, fastest technologies but I still have to stitch all of that together and make a reliable network,” Dave Maltz, a Microsoft distinguished engineer who leads Azure’s Physical Network team told the SONiC roundtable. “What we really needed was a uniform software layer where we can implement changes once and easily spread them out.  SONiC lets us do that on a global scale.”

That single software layer lets Microsoft more easily keep the Azure network healthy as well, Maltz said. “Our time to mitigate and repair problems has gone down significantly…We can get to the root cause of a problem in about an hour, and we can have a fix in like four hours rather than perhaps days it may have taken us before.”

The ability to quickly add key features, such as automation, and applications are some of the reasons Dell has invested in SONiC, said Ihab Tarazi, CTO and senior vice president of networking and solutions with Dell Technologies.

“SONiC is the first networking systems that lets us containerize applications and link them quickly across the network,” Tarazi told the roundtable. “It gives us a common language that lets us deploy applications on any hardware and lets us more easily manage and support a variety of services.”

One of the long-term benefits of SONiC’s being an open-source package will be the ability to more easily program applications and other features.

“We think it will open up the talent pool as we won’t need to transition software people into network programmers and vice versa,” said Yiu Lee, vice president, architecture, networking and communications engineering with Comcast. “We will be able to more easily share problems with the community and take advantage of a variety of skillsets to build better applications.”

As for future enhancements, Lee said there is a need for more WAN and automation tools but “as time goes by we believe those features will come, and more users will just make the community stronger.”