Direct from ODMs: The Hardware Complement to SDN

Subsequent to my return from Network Field Day 3, I read an interesting article published by Wired that dealt with the Internet giants’ shift toward buying networking gear from original design manufacturers (ODMs) rather than from brand-name OEMs such as Cisco, HP Networking, Juniper, and Dell’s Force10 Networks.

The development isn’t new — Andrew Schmitt, now an analyst at Infonetics, wrote about Google designing its own 10-GbE switches a few years ago — but the story confirmed that the trend is gaining momentum and drawing a crowd, which includes brokers and custom suppliers as well as increasing numbers of buyers.

In the Wired article, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook were explicitly cited as web giants buying their switches directly from ODMs based in Taiwan and China. These same buyers previously procured their servers directly from ODMs, circumventing brand-name server vendors such as HP and Dell.  What they’re now doing with networking hardware, then, is a variation on an established theme.

The ONF Connection

Just as with servers, the web titans have their reasons for going directly to ODMs for their networking hardware. Sometimes they want a simpler switch than the brand-name networking vendors offer, and sometimes they want certain functionality that networking vendors do not provide in their commercial products. Most often, though, they’re looking for cheap commodity switches based on merchant silicon, which has become more than capable of handling the requirements the big service providers have in mind.

Software is part of the picture, too, but the Wired story didn’t touch on it. Look at the names of the Internet companies that have gone shopping for ODM switches: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon.

What do those companies have in common besides their status as Internet giants and their purchases of copious amounts of networking gear? Yes, it’s true that they’re also cloud service providers. But there’s something else, too.

With the exception of Amazon, the other three are board members in good standing of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). What’s more,  even though Amazon is not an ONF board member (or even a member), it shares the ONF’s philosophical outlook in relation to making networking infrastructure more flexible and responsive, less complex and costly, and generally getting it out of the way of critical data-center processes.

Pica8 and Cumulus

So, yes, software-defined networking (SDN) is the software complement to cloud-service providers’ direct procurement of networking hardware from ODMs.  In the ONF’s conception of SDN, the server-based controller maps application-driven traffic flows to switches running OpenFlow or some other mechanism that provides interaction between the controller and the switch. Therefore, switches for SDN environments don’t need to be as smart as conventional “vertically integrated” switches that combine packet forwarding and the control plane in the same box.

This isn’t just guesswork on my part. Two companies are cited in the Wired article as “brokers” and “arms dealers” between switch buyers and ODM suppliers. Pica8 is one, and Cumulus Networks is the other.

If you visit the Pica8 website,  you’ll see that the company’s goal is “to commoditize the network industry and to make the network platforms easy to program, robust to operate, and low-cost to procure.” The company says it is “committed to providing high-quality open software with commoditized switches to break the current performance/price barrier of the network industry.” The company’s latest switch, the Pronto 3920, uses Broadcom’s Trident+ chipset, which Pica8 says can be found in other ToR switches, including the Cisco Nexus 3064, Force10 S4810, IBM G8264, Arista 7050S, and Juniper QFC-3500.

That “high-quality open software” to which Pica8 refers? It features XORP open-source routing code, support for Open vSwitch and OpenFlow, and Linux. Pica8 also is a relatively longstanding member of ONF.

Hardware and Software Pedigrees

Cumulus Networks is the other switch arms dealer mentioned in the Wired article. There hasn’t been much public disclosure about Cumulus, and there isn’t much to see on the company’s website. From background information on the professional pasts of the company’s six principals, though, a picture emerges of a company that would be capable of putting together bespoke switch offerings, sourced directly from ODMs, much like those Pica8 delivers.

The co-founders of Cumulus are J.R. Rivers, quoted extensively in the Wired article, and Nolan Leake. A perusal of their LinkedIn profiles reveals that both describe Cumulus as “satisfying the networking needs of large Internet service clusters with high-performance, cost-effective networking equipment.”

Both men also worked at Cisco spin-in venture Nuova Systems, where Rivers served as vice president of systems architecture and Leake served in the “Office of the CTO.” Rivers has a hardware heritage, whereas Leake has a software background, beginning his career building a Java IDE and working at senior positions at VMware and 3Leaf Networks before joining Nuova.

Some of you might recall that 3Leaf’s assets were nearly acquired by Huawei, before the Chinese networking company withdrew its offer after meeting with strenuous objections from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). It was just the latest setback for Huawei in its recurring and unsuccessful attempts to acquire American assets. 3Com, anyone?

For the record, Leake’s LinkedIn profile shows that his work at 3Leaf entailed leading “the development of a distributed virtual machine monitor that leveraged a ccNUMA ASIC to run multiple large (many-core) single system image OSes on a Infiniband-connected cluster of commodity x86 nodes.”

For Companies Not Named Google

Also at Cumulus is Shrijeet Mukherjee, who serves as the startup company’s vice president of software engineering. He was at Nuova, too, and worked at Cisco right up until early this year. At Cisco, Mukherjee focused on” virtualization-acceleration technologies, low-latency Ethernet solutions, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), virtual switching, and data center networking technologies.” He boasts of having led the team that delivered the Cisco Virtualized Interface Card (vNIC) for the UCS server platform.

Another Nuova alumnus at Cumulus is Scott Feldman, who was employed at Cisco until May of last year. Among other projects, he served in a leading role on development of “Linux/ESX drivers for Cisco’s UCS vNIC.” (Do all these former Nuova guys at Cumulus realize that Cisco reportedly is offering big-bucks inducements to those who join its latest spin-in venture, Insieme?)

Before moving to Nuova and then to Cisco, J.R. Rivers was involved with Google’s in-house switch design. In the Wired article, Rivers explains the rationale behind Google’s switch design and the company’s evolving relationship with ODMs. Google originally bought switches designed by the ODMs, but now it designs its own switches and has the ODMs manufacture them to the specifications, similar to how Apple designs its iPads and iPhones, then  contracts with Foxconn for assembly.

Rivers notes, not without reason, that Google is an unusual company. It can easily design its own switches, but other service providers possess neither the engineering expertise nor the desire to pursue that option. Nonetheless, they still might want the cost savings that accrue from buying bare-bones switches directly from an ODM. This is the market Cumulus wishes to serve.

Enterprise/Cloud-Service Provider Split

Quoting Rivers from the Wired story:

“We’ve been working for the last year on opening up a supply chain for traditional ODMs who want to sell the hardware on the open market for whoever wants to buy. For the buyers, there can be some very meaningful cost savings. Companies like Cisco and Force10 are just buying from these same ODMs and marking things up. Now, you can go directly to the people who manufacture it.”

It has appeal, but only for large service providers, and perhaps also for very large companies that run prodigious server farms, such as some financial-services concerns. There’s no imminent danger of irrelevance for Cisco, Juniper, HP, or Dell, who still have the vast enterprise market and even many service providers to serve.

But this is a trend worth watching, illustrating the growing chasm between the DIY hardware and software mentality of the biggest cloud shops and the more conventional approach to networking taken by enterprises.

4 responses to “Direct from ODMs: The Hardware Complement to SDN

  1. Great Post.

    If the network market is going the ODM route, then it makes sense that Insieme will not take the ASIC route, otherwise it will be just a Cisco mark 2. I think you hit the nail on the head, they are more likely and try to be the “Apple” of the networking world. They will also develop core Network Apps, and let developers sell on their platform too, and take 30% cut.

    There is one typo. In the sentence “This is the market Cumulus wishes to server”. I think you meant serve.

  2. Kumar,

    Thanks for the comment, and for catching the typographical error. I’ve made the correction.

  3. Michael Muller

    Do you know any alternatives to Pica8? I am curious about the offered features of ODM switches…

  4. Pingback: The Data Center Journal StrataXGS Trident II For Data Center Networks

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