Category Archives: Dell

Dell Makes Enterprise Moves, Confronts Dilemma

Dell reported its third-quarter earnings yesterday, and reactions to the news generally made for grim reading. The company cannot help but know that it faces a serious dilemma: It must continue an aggressive shift into enterprise solutions while propping up a punch-drunk personal-computer business that is staggered, bloody, and all but beaten.

The word “dilemma” is particularly appropriate in this context. The definition of dilemma is “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.” 

Hard Choices

Dell seems too attached to the PC to give it up, but in the unlikely event that Dell chose to kick to the commoditized box to the curb, it would surrender a large, though diminishing, pool of low-margin revenue. The market would react adversely, particularly if Dell were not able to accelerate growth in other areas.  

While Dell is growing its revenue in servers and networking, especially the latter, those numbers aren’t rising fast enough to compensate for erosion in what Dell calls “mobility” and “desktop.” What’s more, Dell’s storage business has gone into a funk, with “Dell-owned IP storage revenue” down 3% on a year-to-year basis.

Increased Enterprise Focus

To its credit, Dell seems to recognize that it needs to pull out all the stops. It continues to make acquisitions, most of them related to software, designed bolster its enterprise-solutions profile. Today, in fact, it announced the acquisition of Gale Technologies, and it also announced that Dario Zamarian, a former Cisco executive who has been serving as VP and GM of Dell Networking, has become vice president and general manager of  the newly formed Dell Enterprise Systems & Solutions, “focused on the delivery of converged and enterprise workload topologies and solutions.” Zamarian will report to former HP executive Marius Haas, president of Dell Enterprise Solutions Group. 

Zamarian’s former role as VP and GM of Dell Networking will be assumed by Tom Burns, who comes directly from Alcatel-Lucent, where he served as president of that company’s Enterprise Products Group, which included voice, unified communications, networking, and security solutions.

Dell has the cash to make other acquisitions to strengthen its hand in private and hybrid clouds, and we should expect it to do so.  The company would have more cash to make those moves if it were to divest its PC business, but Dell doesn’t seem willing to bite that bullet. 

That would be a difficult move to make — wiping out substantial revenue while eliminating a piece of the business that is a vestigial piece of Dell’s identity — but half measures aren’t in Dell’s long-term interests.  It needs to be all-in on the enterprise, and I think also needs to adopt a software mindset. As long as the PC business is around, I suspect Dell won’t be able to fully and properly make that transition. 

Debate Over Openness of Open vSwitch

Late last week, the illustrious Ivan Pepelnjak pointed me to a post by Matthew Palmer at SDN Central. Pepelnjak thought the post would interest me, and he was right.

While I encourage you to read Palmer’s post firsthand, I will summarize it briefly. Basically, Palmer makes a two-part argument and then leaves us with unsettled questions. The first part of his argument is that the virtual switch (vSwitch) has become the “prime real-estate for network virtualization within the datacenter.” As such, the vSwitch has become a strategic battleground for vendors and service providers alike.

This brings us to the second part of Palmer’s argument, which is more controversial. Palmer implies that the first part of his argument, about the valuable real-estate inhabited by the vSwitch, wouldn’t be a major point of contention if a genuine and viable open vSwitch — and not just an open-source vSwitch — were available. Alas, he says, that is not the case.

Open . . . or Just Open Source? 

Palmer suggests that Open vSwitch (OVS), which wears the mantle of open-source vSwitch, is a proprietary wolf in sheep’s clothing.  He says Open vSwitch might be open source, but that it is far from open. Instead, he says, it is under the direction of one company, Nicira Networks, which “controls the features, capabilities, and protocols supported within OVS and when they are released.”

Writes Palmer:

“Since OVS is ‘Open’ Nicira will gladly take your free labor to develop on OVS and give you an Apache license to ‘fork’ your own distribution; but they essentially decide which features and protocols, from what contributors will be included in the mainline distribution at what time.  This basically masquerades OVS as the ‘free’ switch in a freemium business model where the vendor locks you in with their better, proprietary, paid for version.  This is why many others in the networking community are looking for alternatives to invest their time and development resources. “

From Naive Newcomer to Proprietary Villain

My first reaction was that Nicira must be making some headway commercially. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vendor go from virtual-networking upstart to proprietary villain in a shorter period of time. Palmer is an accomplished business-development executive, and he corresponds regularly with a large circle of industry notables. Clearly, Nicira has gotten their attention.

Not long ago, many denizens of that same community dismissed Nicira as a bunch of technically brilliant but commercially ingenuous SDN neophytes who weren’t a serious threat to the networking industry’s status quo. If Palmer’s post is an accurate barometer of industry sentiment, that view has undergone significant revision.

In some ways, Palmer’s post was foreshadowed by a commentary from Dell’s Brad Hedlund earlier this year. Whereas Palmer bemoaned the proprietary stranglehold that Nicira might gain over the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and large swathes of the SDN community, though, Hedlund took a different tack. While he, like Palmer, noted that Nicira’s engineers played a defining role in developing Open vSwitch, Hedlund was more interested in how Nicira’s approach to SDN prefigured a “significant shift .  . .  when it comes to the relevance and role of “protocols” in building next generation virtual data center networks.”

Diverse Project

In light of Palmer’s charges, I thought I’d reach out to Nicira to solicit a reply. Fortunately, Martin Casado, Nicira’s CTO, was kind enough to get back to me with what he termed “off-the-cuff comments” on Palmer’s post.

His first point was that “Nicira doesn’t have a proprietary vSwitch (never has).” In his post, Palmer wrote that Nicira “has their own proprietary version of Open vSwitch . . . . “

Casado also noted that “Nicira’s kernel module is in mainline Linux, which is clearly not controlled by Nicira,” and that “OVS is one of the largest and most diverse open source projects in the world,” with a “profile better and broader than most projects.”

The Nicira CTO also wrote that Open vSwitch is used by “potentially competitive companies,” including Cisco, Big Switch Networks, NEC, and Midokura. Casado wrote that these vendors are “welcome to fork it, or do whatever they want with it.” On that point, he and Palmer appear to be in agreement, though Palmer contends that Nicira essentially controls the direction of OVS.

SDN’s Long, Hot Summer

Finally, though Palmer’s post suggested that Nicira’s could undermine OpenFlow by swapping it out for a “proprietary (i.e. non-OpenFlow) protocol that only works with Nicira’s vSwitch and controller,” Casado responded as follows: “Development of OpenFlow 1.1 – 1.3 is moving ahead at an extremely aggressive pace.  Multiple organizations are working on it (NTT, Google, T-Systems, and Nicira), and much of the implementation is done and has been committed.”

That response, in and of itself, does not close the door on Nicira leveraging another protocol — and we know that Nicira has proposed two variants of OpenFlow, one at the edge and one in the core, to support an MPLS-like SDN fabric — but it also suggests that OpenFlow isn’t in any imminent danger of being sidelined or relegated to oblivion.

Still, Palmer’s post raises compelling questions and demonstrates that, in the summer of 2012, SDN is generating heat as well as light.

Understanding Cisco’s Relationship to SDN Market

Analysts and observers have variously applauded or denounced Cisco for its network-Cisco ONE programmability pronouncements last week.  Some pilloried the company for being tentative in its approach to SDN, contrasting the industry giant’s perceived reticence with its aggressive pursuit of previous emerging technology markets such as IP PBX, videoconferencing, and converged infrastructure (servers).

Conversely, others have lauded Cisco’s approach to SDN as far more aggressive than its lackluster reply to challenges in market segments such as application-delivery controllers (ADCs) and WAN optimization, where F5 and Riverbed, respectively, demonstrated how a tightly focused strategy and expertise above the network layer could pay off against Cisco.

Different This TIme

But I think they’ve missed a very important point about Cisco’s relationship to the emerging SDN market.  Analogies and comparisons should be handled with care. Close inspection reveals that SDN and the applications it enables represent a completely different proposition from the markets mentioned above.

Let’s break this down by examining Cisco’s aggressive pursuit of IP-based voice and video. It’s not a mystery as to why Cisco chose to charge headlong into those markets. They were opportunities for Cisco to pursue its classic market adjacencies in application-related extensions to its hegemony in routing and switching. Cisco also saw video as synergistic with its core network-infrastructure business because it generated bandwidth-intensive traffic that filled up existing pipes and required new, bigger ones.

Meanwhile, Cisco’s move into UCS servers was driven by strategic considerations. Cisco wanted the extra revenue servers provided, but it also wanted to preemptively seize the advantage over its former server partners (HP, Dell, IBM) before they decided to take the fight to Cisco. What’s more, all the aforementioned vendors confronted the challenge of continuing to grow their businesses and public-market stock prices in markets that were maturing and slowing.

Cisco’s reticence to charge into WAN optimization and ADCs also is explicable. Strategically, at the highest echelons within Cisco, the company viewed these markets as attractive, but not as essential extensions to its core business. The difficulty was not only that Cisco didn’t possess the DNA or the acumen to play in higher-layer network services — though that was definitely a problem — but also that Cisco did not perceive those markets as conferring sufficiently compelling rewards or strategic advantages to warrant the focus and resources necessary for market domination. Hence, we have F5 Networks and its ADC market leadership, though certainly F5’s razor-sharp focus and sustained execution factored heavily into the result.

To Be Continued

Now, let’s look at SDN. For Cisco, what sort of market does it represent? Is it an opportunity to extend its IP-based hegemony, like voice, video, and servers? No, not at all. Is it an adjunct market, such as ADCs and WAN optimization, that would be nice to own but isn’t seen as strategically critical or sufficiently large to move the networking giant’s stock-price needle? No, that’s not it, either.

So, what is SDN’s market relationship to Cisco?

Simply put, it is a potential existential threat, which makes it unlike IP PBXes, videoconferencing, compute hardware, ADCs, and WAN optimization. SDN is a different sort of beast, for reasons that have been covered here and elsewhere many times.  Therefore, it necessitates a different sort of response — carefully calculated, precisely measured, and thoroughly plotted. For Cisco, the ONF-sanctioned approach to SDN is not an opportunity that the networking giant can seize,  but an incipient threat to the lifeblood of its business that it must blunt and contain — and, whatever else, keep out of its enterprise redoubt.

Did Cisco achieve its objective? That’s for a subsequent post.

Dell’s Steady Progression in Converged Infrastructure

With its second annual Dell Storage Forum in Boston providing the backdrop, Dell made a converged-infrastructure announcement this week.  (The company briefed me under embargo late last week.)

The press release is available on the company’s website, but I’d like to draw attention to a few aspects of the announcement that I consider noteworthy.

First off, Dell now is positioned to offer its customers a full complement of converged infrastructure, spanning server, storage, and networking hardware, as well as management software. For customers seeking a single-vendor, one-throat-to-choke solution, this puts Dell  on parity with IBM and HP, while Cisco still must partner with EMC or with NetApp for its storage technology.

Bringing the Storage

Until this announcement, Dell was lacking the storage ingredients. Now, with what Dell is calling the Dell Converged Blade Data Center solution, the company is adding its EqualLogic iSCSI Blade Arrays to Dell PowerEdge blade servers and Dell Force10 MXL blade switching. Dell says this package gives customers an entire data center within a single blade enclosure, streamlining operations and management, and thereby saving money.

Dell’s other converged-infrastructure offering is the Dell vStart 1000. For this iteration of vStart, Dell is including, for the first time, its Compellent storage and Force10 networking gear in one integrated rack for private-cloud environments.

The vStart 1000 comes in two configurations: the vStart 1000m and the vStart 1000v. The packages are nearly identical — PowerEdge M620 servers, PowerEdge R620 management servers, Dell Compellent Series 40 storage, Dell Force10 S4810 ToR Networking and Dell Force10 S4810 ToR Networking, plus Brocade 5100 ToR Fibre-Channel Switches — but the vStart 1000m comes with Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter (with the Hyper-V hypervisor), whereas the vStart 1000v features trial editions of VMware vCenter and VMware vSphere (with the ESXi hypervisor).

An an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Dell’s inclusion of Brocade’s Fibre-Channel switches confirms that Dell is keeping that partnership alive to satisfy customers’ FC requirements.

Full Value from Acquisitions

In summary, then, is Dell delivering converged infrastructure with both its in-house storage options, demonstrating that it has fully integrated its major hardware acquisitions into the mix.   It’s covering as much converged ground as it can with this announcement.

Nonetheless, it’s fair to ask where Dell will find customers for its converged offerings. During my briefing with Dell, I was told that mid-market was the real sweet spot, though Dell also sees departmental opportunities in large enterprises.

The mid-market, though, is a smart choice, not only because the various technology pieces, individually and collectively, seem well suited to the purpose, but also because Dell, given its roots and lineage, is a natural player in that space. Dell has a strong mandate to contest the mid-market, where it can hold its own against any of its larger converged-infrastructure rivals.

Mid-Market Sweet Spot

What’s more, the mid-market — unlike cloud-service providers today and some large enterprise in the not-too-distant future — are unlikely to have the inclination, resources, and skills to pursue a DIY, software-driven, DevOps-oriented variant of converged infrastructure that might involve bare-bones hardware from Asian ODMs. At the end of the day, converged infrastructure is sold as packaged hardware, and paying customers will need to perceive and realize value from buying the boxes.

The mid-market would seem more than receptive to the value proposition that Dell is selling, which is that its converged infrastructure will reduce the complexity of IT management and deliver operational cost savings.

This finally leads us to a discussion of Dell’s take on converged infrastructure. As noted in an eChannelLine article, Dell’s notion of converged infrastructure encompasses operations management, services management, and applications management. As Dell continues down the acquisition trail, we should expect the company to place greater emphasis on software-based intelligence in those areas.

That, too, would be a smart move. The battle never ends, but Dell — despite its struggles in the PC market — is now more than punching its own weight in converged infrastructure.

Cisco’s Storage Trap

Recent commentary from Barclays Capital analyst Jeff Kvaal has me wondering whether  Cisco might push into the storage market. In turn, I’ve begun to think about a strategic drift at Cisco that has been apparent for the last few years.

But let’s discuss Cisco and storage first, then consider the matter within a broader context.

Risks, Rewards, and Precedents

Obviously a move into storage would involve significant risks as well as potential rewards. Cisco would have to think carefully, as it presumably has done, about the likely consequences and implications of such a move. The stakes are high, and other parties — current competitors and partners alike — would not sit idly on their hands.

Then again, Cisco has been down this road before, when it chose to start selling servers rather than relying on boxes from partners, such as HP and Dell. Today, of course, Cisco partners with EMC and NetApp for storage gear. Citing the precedent of Cisco’s server incursion, one could make the case that Cisco might be tempted to call the same play .

After all, we’re entering a period of converged and virtualized infrastructure in the data center, where private and public clouds overlap and merge. In such a world, customers might wish to get well-integrated compute, networking, and storage infrastructure from a single vendor. That’s a premise already accepted at HP and Dell. Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely data-center infrastructure is coming together, in one way or another, in service of application workloads.

Limits to Growth?

Cisco also has a growth problem. Despite attempts at strategic diversification, including failed ventures in consumer markets (Flip, anyone?), Cisco still hasn’t found a top-line driver that can help it expand the business while supporting its traditional margins. Cisco has pounded the table perennially for videoconferencing and telepresence, but it’s not clear that Cisco will see as much benefit from the proliferation of video collaboration as once was assumed.

To complicate matters, storm clouds are appearing on the horizon, with Cisco’s core businesses of switching and routing threatened by the interrelated developments of service-provider alienation and software-defined networking (SDN). Cisco’s revenues aren’t about to fall off a cliff by any means, but nor are they on the cusp of a second-wind surge.

Such uncertain prospects must concern Cisco’s board of directors, its CEO John Chambers, and its institutional investors.

Suspicious Minds

In storage, Cisco currently has marriages of mutual convenience with EMC (VBlocks and the sometimes-strained VCE joint venture) and with NetApp (the FlexPod reference architecture).  The lyrics of Mark James’ song Suspicious Minds are evocative of what’s transpiring between Cisco and these storage vendors. The problem is not only that Cisco is bigamous, but that the networking giant might have another arrangement in mind that leaves both partners jilted.

Neither EMC nor NetApp is oblivious to the danger, and each has taken care to reduce its strategic reliance on Cisco. Conversely, Cisco would be exposed to substantial risks if it were to abandon its existing partnership in favor of a go-it-alone approach to storage.

I think that’s particularly true in the case of EMC, which is the majority owner of server-virtualization market leader VMware as well as a storage vendor. The corporate tandem of VMware and EMC carries considerable enterprise clout, and Cisco is likely to be understandably reluctant to see the duo become its adversaries.

Caught in a Trap

Still, Cisco has boxed itself into a strategic corner. It needs growth, it hasn’t been able to find it from diversification away from the data center, and it could easily see the potential of broadening its reach from networking and servers to storage. A few years ago, the logical choice might have been for Cisco to acquire EMC. Cisco had the market capitalization and the onshore cash to pull it off five years ago, perhaps even three years ago.

Since then, though, the companies’ market fortunes have diverged. EMC now has a market capitalization of about $54 billion, while Cisco’s is slightly more than $90 billion. Even if Cisco could find a way of repatriating its offshore cash hoard without taking a stiff hit from the U.S. taxman, it wouldn’t have the cash to pull of an acquisition of EMC, whose shareholders doubtless would be disinclined to accept Cisco stock as part of a proposed transaction.

Therefore, even if it wanted to do so, Cisco cannot acquire EMC. It might have been a good move at one time, but it isn’t practical now.

Losing Control

Even NetApp, with a market capitalization of more than $12.1 billion, would rate as the biggest purchase by far in Cisco’s storied history of acquisitions. Cisco could pull it off, but then it would have to try to further counter and commoditize VMware’s virtualization and cloud-management presence through a fervent embrace of something like OpenStack or a potential acquisition of Citrix. I don’t know whether Cisco is ready for either option.

Actually, I don’t see an easy exit from this dilemma for Cisco. It’s mired in somewhat beneficial but inherently limiting and mutually distrustful relationships with two major storage players. It would probably like to own storage just as it owns servers, so that it might offer a full-fledged converged infrastructure stack, but it has let the data-center grass grow under its feet. Just as it missed a beat and failed to harness virtualization and cloud as well as it might have done, it has stumbled similarly on storage.

The status quo is likely to prevail until something breaks. As we all know, however, making no decision effectively is a decision, and it carries consequences. Increasingly, and to an extent that is unprecedented, Cisco is losing control of its strategic destiny.

At Dell, Networking’s Role Secondary but Integral

Dell made a networking announcement last week, and, for the most part, reaction was muted. That’s party because Dell’s networking narrative is evolving and in transition, and partly because the announcements related to incremental, though notable, progression.

To be fair, Dell’s networking narrative is part of a larger story the company is telling in the data center. Networking is integral to that story, but it’s not the centerpiece and never will be. Dell is working from the blueprint of its Virtual Network Architecture (VNA), so its purchase and stewardship of Force10 is framed within a bigger picture that involves not just converged infrastructure, but also workload-driven orchestration of virtualized environments.

Integration and Assimilation

Some good news for Dell is that its integration and assimilation of Force10 Networks seems to have gone well and is now complete.  Dell’s OpenManage Networking Manager (OMNM) 5.0. offers a new look and support for the full line of Dell networking products, including the Force10 portfolio. What’s more, in its Dell Force10 MXL blade interconnect, a  40Gb Ethernet switch for the M1000e Blade chassis, Dell brings delivers an apt metaphor as well as a blade-server switch.

In that sense, it’s helpful to recall that Dell’s acquisition of Force10 was motivated by a desire to integrate networking into an automated, orchestrated data center in which it already offered compute and storage. Dell concluded that needed to own networking technology just as it owned server and storage technology. It further deduced that it needed a comprehensive networking portfolio, extending across SAN and LAN environments. Just as it moved previously to shake its dependence on storage partners, it would do likewise in networking.

Dell sees networking as an integral enabling technology, but not as an end in itself. Dell believes it can be more flexible than HP and IBM in certain enterprise demographics, and it believes it can outflank Cisco by being less “network centric” and more open to developments such as software defined networking (SDN).Force10, which was thought to be between a rock and hard place just before being acquired, understands and accepts its role in the Dell universe.

Fitting Into VNA

The key to understanding Dell’s data-center strategy is Virtual Network Architecture (VNA). The announcement of the new blade-server switch fits into that plan. Dell says VNA’s purpose is to virtualize, automate, and orchestrates network services so that they can adapt readily to application and business requirements. Core elements of VNA include the following:

  • High-performance switching systems for the campus and the data center
  • Virtualized Layer 4-7 services
  • Comprehensive automation & orchestration software
  • Open workload/hypervisor interfaces

So, what does it all mean? It means Dell is taking an approach that it believes will be differentiated and add considerable value in customers’ and prospective customers’ data centers. On the networking front, Dell believes it has espoused a strategy that encompasses and envelops the rise of SDN while also taking and accommodating approach to the networking gear already present in customer accounts.

Workload-Oriented Approach

In an article at The VAR Guy, Nathan Eddy quotes Dario Zamarian, VP and GM of Dell Networking, as follows:

“We are taking a workload-oriented approach — as in, ‘What does each require first?’ as opposed to starting with the network first [and] then trying to fit the application to it. In other words, networking is the enabler. The ultimate goal of VNA is to make networking as simple to set up, automate, operate, and manage as servers. VNA is doing for networking what VMware did for servers.”

Well, that’s the plan. In theory, in a slide show, all the pieces are there, but Dell has to execute and deliver on the vision. One can identify holes in the structure, places where Dell will need to buy, partner, or build to close the gaps. It’s clearly doing that, though, as the Force10 acquisition and others recently attest.

Taking Force10’s technology forward in alignment with its plans, Dell not only announced  a 40GbE-enabled blade server switch. It also introduced fabric- and network-management tools to simplify operations in the data center and the campus, and it announced data-center enhancements (stacking technology, L2 multipathing, data-center bridging, automated workload mobility through auto-provisioning of VLANs) to Force10’s FTOS for its S4810 10/40G switching platform.

Encompassing SDN

On the SDN front, Dell announced interoperability with Big Switch Networks’ Open SDN architecture and its OpenFlow-based Floodlight controller. That interoperability will be showcased next week in joint demonstrations at Interop, with the application emphasis on cloud multi-tenancy.

Regardless of where Dell goes with SDN, and regardless of how quickly (or slowly) SDN makes encroachments into the enterprise, Dell’s VNA model accounts for it and much else besides. Dell believes it can win in workload and network orchestration, with its Advanced Infrastructure Manager (AIM) providing virtual-network programming interfaces and doubtless with some forthcoming orchestration technologies it has yet to introduce (or buy).

Dell’s VNA seems a viable plan. But can the company continue to execute on it? Dell would have more focus and resources to do so if it jettisoned its woebegone consumer business, but that divestiture doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Debating SDN, OpenFlow, and Cisco as a Software Company

Greg Ferro writes exceptionally well, is technologically knowledgeable, provides incisive commentary, and invariably makes cogent arguments over at EtherealMind.  Having met him, I can also report that he’s a great guy. So, it is with some surprise that I find myself responding critically to his latest blog post on OpenFlow and SDN.

Let’s start with that particular conjunction of terms. Despite occasional suggestions to the contrary, SDN and OpenFlow are not inseparable or interchangeable. OpenFlow is a protocol, a mechanism that allows a server, known in SDN parlance as a controller, to interact with and program flow tables (for packet forwarding) on switches. It facilitates the separation of the control plane from the data plane in some SDN networks.

But OpenFlow is not SDN, which can be achieved with or without OpenFlow.  In fact, Nicira Networks recently announced two SDN customer deployments of its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) — at DreamHost and at Rackspace, respectively — and you won’t find mention of OpenFlow in either press release, though OpenStack and its Quantum networking project receive prominent billing. (I’ll be writing more about the Nicira deployments soon.)

A Protocol in the Big Picture 

My point is not to diminish or disparage OpenFlow, which I think can and will be used gainfully in a number of SDN deployments. My point is that we have to be clear that the bigger picture of SDN is not interchangeable with the lower-level functionality of OpenFlow.

In that respect, Ferro is absolutely correct when he says that software-defined networking, and specifically SDN controller and application software, are “where the money is.” He conflates it with OpenFlow — which may or may not be involved, as we already have established — but his larger point is valid.  SDN, at the controller and above, is where all the big changes to the networking model, and to the industry itself, will occur.

Ferro also likely is correct in his assertion that OpenFlow, in and of itself, will  not enable “a choice of using low cost network equipment instead of the expensive networking equipment that we use today. “ In the near term, at least, I don’t see major prospects for change on that front as long as backward compatibility, interoperability with a bulging bag of networking protocols, and the agendas of the networking old guard are at play.

Cisco as Software Company

However, I think Ferro is wrong when he says that the market-leading vendors in switching and routing, including Cisco and Juniper, are software companies. Before you jump down my throat, presuming that’s what you intend to do, allow me to explain.

As Ferro says, Cisco and Juniper, among others, have placed increasing emphasis on the software features and functionality of their products. I have no objection there. But Ferro pushes his argument too far and suggests that the “networking business today is mostly a software business.”  It’s definitely heading in that direction, but Cisco, for one, isn’t there yet and probably won’t be for some time.  The key word, by the way, is “business.”

Cisco is developing more software these days, and it is placing more emphasis on software features and functionality, but what it overwhelmingly markets and sells to its customers are switches, routers, and other hardware appliances. Yes, those devices contain software, but Cisco sells them as hardware boxes, with box-oriented pricing and box-oriented channel programs, just as it has always done. Nitpickers will note that Cisco also has collaboration and video software, which it actually sells like software, but that remains an exception to the rule.

Talks Like a Hardware Company, Walks Like a Hardware Company

For the most part, in its interactions with its customers and the marketplace in general, Cisco still thinks and acts like a hardware vendor, software proliferation notwithstanding. It might have more software than ever in its products, but Cisco is in the hardware business.

In that respect, Cisco faces the same fundamental challenge that server vendors such as HP, Dell, and — yes — Cisco confront as they address a market that will be radically transformed by the rise of cloud services and ODM-hardware-buying cloud service providers. Can it think, figuratively and literally, outside the box? Just because Cisco develops more software than it did before doesn’t mean the answer is yes, nor does it signify that Cisco has transformed itself into a software vendor.

Let’s look, for example, at Cisco’s approach to SDN. Does anybody really believe that Cisco, with its ongoing attachment to ASIC-based hardware differentiation, will move toward a software-based delivery model that places the primary value on server-based controller software rather than on switches and routers? It’s just not going to happen, because  it’s not what Cisco does or how it operates.

Missing the Signs 

And that bring us to my next objection.  In arguing that Cisco and others have followed the market and provided the software their customers want, Ferro writes the following:

“Billion dollar companies don’t usually miss the obvious and have moved to enhance their software to provide customer value.”

Where to begin? Well, billion-dollar companies frequently have missed the obvious and gotten it horribly wrong, often when at least some individuals within the companies in question knew that their employer was getting it horribly wrong.  That’s partly because past and present successes can sow the seeds of future failure. As in Clayton M. Christensen’s classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, industry leaders can have their vision blinkered by past successes, which prevent them from detecting disruptive innovations. In other cases, former market leaders get complacent or fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a competitive threat until it is too late.

The list of billion-dollar technology companies that have missed the obvious and failed spectacularly, sometimes disappearing into oblivion, is too long to enumerate here, but some  names spring readily to mind. Right at the top (or bottom) of our list of industry ignominy, we find Nortel Networks. Once a company valued at nearly $400 billion, Nortel exists today only in thoroughly digested pieces that were masticated by other companies.

Is Cisco Decline Inevitable?

Today, we see a similarly disconcerting situation unfolding at Research In Motion (RIM), where many within the company saw the threat posed by Apple and by the emerging BYOD phenomenon but failed to do anything about it. Going further back into the annals of computing history, we can adduce examples such as Novell, Digital Equipment Corporation, as well as the raft of other minicomputer vendors who perished from the planet after the rise of the PC and client-sever computing. Some employees within those companies might even have foreseen their firms’ dark fates, but the organizations in which they toiled were unable to rescue themselves.

They were all huge successes, billion-dollar companies, but, in the face of radical shifts in industry and market dynamics, they couldn’t change who and what they were.  The industry graveyard is full of the carcasses of company’s that were once enormously successful.

Am I saying this is what will happen to Cisco in an era of software-defined networking? No, I’m not prepared to make that bet. Cisco should be able to adapt and adjust better than the aforementioned companies were able to do, but it’s not a given. Just because Cisco is dominant in the networking industry today doesn’t mean that it will be dominant forever. As the old investment disclaimer goes, past performance does not guarantee future results. What’s more, Cisco has shown a fallibility of late that was not nearly as apparent in its boom years more than a decade ago.

Early Days, Promising Future

Finally, I’m not sure that Ferro is correct when he says Open Network Foundation’s (ONF) board members and its biggest service providers, including Google, will achieve CapEx but not OpEx savings with SDN. We really don’t know whether these companies are deriving OpEx savings because they’re keeping what they do with their operations and infrastructure highly confidential. Suffice it to say, they see compelling reasons to move away from buying their networking gear from the industry’s leading vendors, and they see similarly compelling reasons to embrace SDN.

Ferro ends his piece with two statements, the first of which I agree with wholeheartedly:

“That is the future of Software Defined Networking – better, dynamic, flexible and business focussed networking. But probably not much cheaper in the long run.”

As for that last statement, I believe there is insufficient evidence on which to render a verdict. As we’ve noted before, these are early days for SDN.

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.

Still Early Days in SDN Ecosystem

Jason Edelman has provided a helpful overview of the software-defined networking (SDN) ecosystem and the vendors currently active within it. Like any form chart, though, it’s a snapshot in time, and therefore subject to change, as I’m sure Edelman would concede.

Still, what Edelman has delivered is a useful contextual framework to understand where many vendors stand today, where “stealth” vendors might attempt to make their marks shortly, and where and how the overall space might evolve.

Edelman presents the somewhat-known entities — Nicira, Big Switch, NEC, and Embrane (L4-7) at the applications/services layer — and he also addresses  vendors providing controllers, where no one platform has gained an appreciable commercial advantage because the market remains nascent.  He also covers the “switch infrastructure” vendors, which include HP Networking, Netgear, IBM, Pica8, NEC, Arista, Juniper, and others. (In a value-based analysis of the SDN market, “switch infrastructure” is the least interesting layer, but it is essential to have an abundance of interoperable hardware on the market.)

Cards Still to be Played

The real battle, from which it might take considerable time for clears winners to emerge, will occur at the two upper layers, where controller vendors will be looking to win the patronage of purveyors of applications and services. At the moment, the picture is fuzzy. It remains possible that an eventual winner of the inevitable controller-market shakeout has yet to enter the frame.

In that regard, look for established networking players and new entrants to make some noise in the year ahead. Edelman has listed many of them, and I’ve heard that a few more are lurking in the shadows. Names that  are likely to be in the news soon include Plexxi, LineRate Systems (another L4-7 player, it seems), and Ericsson (with its OpenFlow/MPLS effort).

These are, as the saying goes, early days.

Xsigo’s Virtualized Infrastructure Draws Cisco’s Fire

Long involved in the discussion about and the market for converged I/O, Xsigo wants to be part of a larger debate and a potentially much bigger market opportunity.

Xsigo said last summer that its goal was to virtualize components of data-center networking, just as servers and storage have been virtualized previously. Wait, some of you might say, isn’t that the purview of software-defined networking (SDN) vendors? Well, yes, that’s true, and while there are obvious differences between what Xsigo delivers and what’s being put on the table by SDN purveyors, Xsigo thinks it has a compelling story to tell.

Xsigo’s I/O Director started off addressing virtualization and data transfer between servers and storage. Last summer, though, its I/O Director stepped up to the server-to-server challenge, simultaneously extending its incursion onto server turf while making a claim on networking territory.

Cisco Takes Notice

That got the attention of Cisco Systems, which offers networking and servers, and a relatively vehement vendetta ensued between the two companies. Xsigo probably got more benefit than Cisco did from the mutual antagonism, if only because Cisco’s public reaction to Xsigo indicated that the smaller player had done enough damage to be considered a threat by the networking giant. In aiming its competitive marketing guns at Xsigo and blasting away, Cisco explicitly acknowledged Xsigo and implicitly conferred added legitimacy in the process.

At any rate, with the addition of the Xsigo Server Fabric, which began shipping in earnest toward the end of last year, the Xsigo I/O Director now allows servers and devices to connect to each other directly without going over the network. As a result, adding a virtual machine (VM) doesn’t involve using an IP address or setting up a virtual LAN (VLAN).  That’s addressed by I/O director and its virtual server interfaces.

Market analyst Zeus Kerravla has said that the Xsigo Server Fabric creates a new infrastructure atop the physical network, which is true enough. The Xsigo Server Fabric obviates the access-layer network, allowing servers and their VMs to communicate directly.

Bumping Layers

Xsigo contends its Server Fabric also effectively eliminates the aggregation layer. Xsigo says its infrastructure extends as for as the core network, where it is compatible with switches from any of the major players, including Cisco and Juniper. As such, Xsigo says its technology transforms a hierarchical network into a pool of bandwidth that can be used to connect virtualized resources in a data center.

By reducing the numbers of switch ports and infrastructure layers — the company says there’s just one layer of connectivity management between the OS or hypervisor and the core network with its approach as compared to as many as four layers in the Cisco model — Xsigo says its business model is the exact opposite of Cisco’s. Further to that point, Xsigo says that it is open, acting as a transparent conduit moving data between servers and the network core, whereas it alleges Cisco is not. Finally, Xsigo says it has no server agenda, whereas Cisco pushes its own servers as part of its Unified Computing System (UCS) for data-center virtualization.

Playing Its Part

Having no server agenda and taking a cut of the networking pie seem to have resulted in a go-it-alone strategy for Xsigo. It’s conceivable that market dynamics  and shifting vendor alliances could change that picture, but for now Xsigo doesn’t have a powerful technology-partner ecosystem to leverage.  As The Register noted, Xsigo has no OEM deals and is not thought to be an acquisition target of a major player, though Dell is responsible for about 20 percent of Xsigo’s sales and Oracle is cited as a potential acquirer in some quarters.

Xsigo customers, including some big names, have derived some significant cost savings from cutting down on cabling and getting much greater utilization from servers, virtual machines, and their network resources.

While not a member of the SDN fraternity, Xsigo wants us to know that it is playing its part in virtualized infrastructure for the data center.

Fear Compels HP and Dell to Stick with PCs

For better or worse, Hewlett-Packard remains committed to the personal-computer business, neither selling off nor spinning off that unit in accordance with the wishes of its former CEO. At the same, Dell is claiming that it is “not really a PC company,” even though it will continue to sell an abundance of PCs.

Why are these two vendors staying the course in a low-margin business? The popular theory is that participation in the PC business affords supply-chain benefits such as lower costs for components that can be leveraged across servers. There might be some truth to that, but not as much as you might think.

At the outset, let’s be clear about something: Neither HP nor Dell manufactures its own PCs. Manufacture of personal computers has been outsourced to electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies and original design manufacturers (ODMs).

Growing Role of the ODM

The latter do a lot more than assemble and manufacture PCs. They also provide outsourced R&D and design for OEM PC vendors.  As such, perhaps the greatest amount of added value that a Dell or an HP brings to its PCs is represented by the name on the bezel (the brand) and the sales channels and customer-support services (which also can be outsourced) they provide.

Major PC vendors many years ago decided to transfer manufacturing to third-party companies in Taiwan and China. Subsequently, they also increasingly chose to outsource product design. As a result, ODMs design and manufacture PCs. Typically ODMs will propose various designs to the PC vendors and will then build the models the vendors select. The PC vendor’s role in the design process often comes down to choosing the models they want, sometimes with vendor-specified tweaks for customization and market differentiation.

In short, PC vendors such as HP and Dell don’t really make PCs at all. They rebrand them and sell them, but their involvement in the actual creation of the computers has diminished markedly.

Apple Bucks the Trend 

At this point, you might be asking: What about Apple? Simply put, unlike its PC brethren, Apple always has insisted on controlling and owning a greater proportion of the value-added ingredients of its products.

Unlike Dell and HP, for example, Apple has its own operating system for its computers, tablets, and smartphones. Also unlike Dell and HP, Apple did not assign hardware design to ODMs. In seeking costs savings from outsourced design and manufacture, HP and Dell sacrificed control over and ownership of their portable and desktop PCs. Apple wagered that it could deliver a premium, higher-cost product with a unique look and feel. It won the bet.

A Spurious Claim?

Getting back to HP, does it actually derive economies of scale for its server business from the purchase of PC components in the supply chain? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. The ODMs with which HP contracts for design and manufacture of its PCs would get a much better deal on component costs than would HP, and it’s now standard practice for those ODMs to buy common components that can be used in the manufacture and assembly of products for all their brand-name OEM customers. It’s not clear to me what proportion of components in HP’s PCs are supplied and integrated by the ODMs, but I suspect the percentage is substantial.

On the whole, then, HP and Dell might be advancing a spurious argument about remaining in the PC business because it confers savings on the purchase of components that can used in servers.

Diagnosing the Addiction

If so, then, why would HP and Dell remain in the PC game? Well, the answer is right there on the balance sheets of both companies. Despite attempts at diversification, and despite initiatives to transform into the next IBM, each company still has a revenue reliance on – perhaps even an addiction to — PCs.

According to calculations by Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu, about 70 to 75 percent of Dell revenue is connected to the sale of PCs. (Dell derived about 43 percent of its revenue directly from PCs in its most recent quarter.) In relative terms, HP’s revenue reliance on PCs is not as great — about 30% of direct revenue — but, when one considers the relationship between PCs and related related peripherals, including printers, the company’s PC exposure is considerable.

If either company were to exit the PC business, shareholders would react adversely. The departure from the PC business would leave a gaping revenue hole that would not be easy to fill. Yes, relative margins and profitability should improve, but at the cost of much lower channel and revenue profiles. Then there is the question of whether a serious strategic realignment would actually be successful. There’s risk in letting go of a bird in hand for one that’s not sure to be caught in the bush.

ODMs Squeeze Servers, Too

Let’s put aside, at least for this post, the question of whether it’s good strategy for Dell and HP to place so much emphasis on their server businesses. We know that the server business faces high-end disruption from ODMs, which increasingly offer hardware directly to large customers such as cloud service providers, oil-and-gas firms,  and major government agencies. The OEM (or vanity) server vendors still have the vast majority of their enterprise customers as buyers, but it’s fair to wonder about the long-term viability of that market, too.

As ODMs take on more of the R&D and design associated with server-hardware production, they must question just how much value the vanity OEM vendors are bringing to customers. I think the customers and vendors themselves are asking the same questions, because we’re now seeing a concerted effort in the server space by vendors such as Dell and HP to differentiate “above the board” with software and system innovations.

Fear Petrifies

Can HP really become a dominant purveyor of software and services to enterprises and cloud service providers? Can Dell be successful as a major player in the data center? Both companies would like to think that they can achieve those objectives, but it remains to be seen whether they have the courage of their convictions. Would they bet the business on such strategic shifts?

Aye, there’s the rub. Each is holding onto a commoditized, low-margin PC business not because they like being there, but because they’re afraid of being somewhere else.

Exploring the Symbiosis Between Merchant Silicon and Software-Defined Networking

In a recent post at EtherealMind.com, Greg Ferro examined possible implications associated with the impending dominance of merchant silicon in the networking industry.

Early in his post, Ferro reproduces a Broadcom graphic illustrating that the major switch vendors all employ Broadcom’s Trident chipset family in their gear. Vendors represented on the graphic include Cisco, Juniper, Dell, Arista, HP, IBM (BNT), and Alcatel-Lucent.

Abyss Awaits

Custom switching ASICs haven’t gone the way of eight-track cartridges just yet, but the technology industry’s grim reaper is quickening his loping stride and approaching at a baleful gallop, scythe at the ready. Interrelated economic and technological factors have conspired, as they will, to put the custom ASIC on a terminal path.

There’s a chicken-and-egg debate as to whether economics occasioned and hastened this technological change or whether the causation was reversed, but, either way, the result will be the same. At some point, for switching purposes, it will become counterproductive and economically untenable to continue to design, develop, and incorporate custom ASICs into shipping products.

What’s more, the custom ASIC’s trip to the boneyard will be expedited, at least in part, by the symbiotic relationship that has developed between merchant silicon and software-defined networking (SDN).

Difficult Adjustment for Some

Commercially, of course, merchant silicon preceded SDNs by a number of years. Recently, however, the two have converged dynamically, so much so that, as Ferro acknowledges, future differentiation in networking will derive overwhelmingly from advances in software rather than from those in hardware. Vendors will offer identical hardware. They will compete on the basis of their software, including the applications and, yes, the management capabilities they bring to market.

For companies that have marketed and sold their products primarily on the basis of hardware speeds and feeds and associated features and benefits, the adjustment will be difficult.  The bigger the ship, the harder it will be to turn.

There are some caveats, of course. While seemingly inevitable, this narrative could take some time to play out.  Although the commercial success of merchant silicon was not contingent on the rise of software-defined networks, the continued ascent of the latter will accelerate and cement the dominance of the former. To the extent that the SDN movement — perhaps torn between OpenFlow and other mechanisms and protocols — fragments or is otherwise slowed in its progress, the life of the custom ASIC might be prolonged.

Timing the Enterprise Transition

Similarly, even if we presuppose that SDN technology and its ecosystem progress smoothly and steadily, SDN is likely to gain meaningful traction first with service providers and only later with enterprises. That said, the line demarcating enterprises and service providers will move and blur as applications and infrastructure migrate, in whole or in part, to the cloud. It’s anybody’s guess as to when and exactly how that transition will transform the enterprise-networking market, but we can see the outlines of change on the horizon.

Nothing ever plays out in the real world exactly as it does on paper, so I expect complications to spoil the prescience of the foregoing forecast.

Still, I know one thing for sure: As the SDN phenomenon eventually takes hold, the role of the switch will change, and that means the design of the switch will change. If the switch is destined to become a dumbed-down data-forwarding box, it doesn’t need a custom ASIC. Merchant silicon is more than up to that task.