Dell’s bare metal switch is a big deal for SDN


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While Dell isn’t exactly the biggest player in networking, it’s still relevant to note how important their announcement of a bare metal switch is to Software Defined Networking (SDN). I believe people inside of the virtualization community get the advantages of SDN. At least the virtualization community gets the advantages for the virtualized infrastructure.

The Dell announcement helps bring to reality some of the advantages from a physical network perspective. I’ve long struggled with the idea of using VXLAN to extend a software based overlay to individual ports on a physical switch. My typical use case is an application that has virtual servers that work in conjunction with physical hosts. These hosts can be physical servers, firewalls or load balancers. The hosts could also be logical devices on a physical switch (NFV).

What if you wanted to manage the entire application environment as a single virtual network? First, why. The application can become self contained. It takes the notion of VMware vApp to another level. You can take an application along with the associated networking and move it to another physical environment.

In an ideal world, the solution would allow you extend the port of a logical device to a port on the network underlay. For example, you create a virtual switch and you want to add a subset of physical ports on the underlay to be managed as ports on your virtual switch. Today, we’d use VXLAN to give the basic functionality. However, the ability to run let’s say NSX code directly on a bare metal switch just extends your virtual network directly to the underlay.

This hurts my head in a completely different way. Now my simple use case becomes a no brainer. You think one level deeper about the management capability you receive by blurring the lines between the underlay and the overlay. This is the promise of the Cisco ACI solution. At least, it’s the promise if you have an all Cisco environment.

I’m just starting to digest the impact of a bare metal switch in the enterprise. I’m sure as I read more and give this some thought I’ll have something more concrete or substantial to discuss.

Published by Keith Townsend

Now I'm @CTOAdvisor

8 thoughts on “Dell’s bare metal switch is a big deal for SDN

  1. Keith,

    I would definitely agree that the Dell – Cumulus announcement is another step towards validation of SDN. Interestingly, the announcement itself seems to emphasize more of the potential benefit of managing network switches just like Linux hosts, since the Cumulus OS is pure Linux. This is a direct appeal to DevOps folks, however isn’t speaking directly to the key benefits of moving to an SDN-based network.

    From what I’ve seen and heard, service providers like Google and carriers who’ve implemented bare-metal / whitebox SDN are able to leverage much cheaper commodity hardware which only needs to handle packet forwarding, with control passed to an upstream controller over protocols like OpenFlow. This reduces dependence on pricey vendor hardware (i.e. Cisco) as well as improves programmability for network flows. As to if, when and how this model translates to your typical enterprise network, well that is the proverbial $64K question I suppose…

    Full disclosure: I am employed by Dell, however any opinions and statements made here are mine alone.

    Learned about your blog from colleague Peter Hurst, who has nice things to say about you 🙂

    1. Cool. I was to have lunch with Peter today but he flaked out on me. Something about the flu from his kids 🙂

      The fact that Dell has released a switch that runs a pure Linux distribution is a big deal in itself. I know solutions from other players like Arista has a Linux-Like kernel but a open solution is a big deal for the future.

      Thanks for reading and contributing to the conversation.

      1. “I think it’s incredibly interesting that a major vendor chose to release an open switch at all.”

        While I’ve been predicting it, I didn’t expect it at this point.

        I think it’s really exciting.

  2. Hey Keith,

    Appreciate your insight! It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I think with SDN there are 2 things, first there is just the tech, then there is the SDN movement – which is what I would call the broader ecosystem and economic things that need to happen.

    One concern I have had is, with even the almighty Cisco repeatedly acknowledging just how bad networking has become – many in the industry are focused on the technical aspects of SDN … but the industry didnt get screwed up becasue of a technical problem … first it become monopolized, then non-competitive, then it fell behind technologically.

    Now the industry is largely focused on the technology problem when there is no technology that could fix things as the industry is not suffering from a lack of any particular technology, it is lacking in economic diversity and industry checks/balances that are needed to ensure that the industry remains healthy and competitive, the rest will take care of itself. The ecosystem, market & regulatory problems are more challenging and substantially more important than any technology problem we are facing to date.

    The #1 most common analogy that has been used for SDN has been comparing networking to the Mainframe and showing how networking is still very much in that mainframe-like state. And if you consider this analogy, the Cumulus deal could prove to be a historical milestone in the advancement of networking. Funny thing is, I had always thought openflow was like the phoenix bios in a way, and while they are entirely different things its interesting the analogy still works. OpenFlow was the vehicle first used by the industry to demand and get access to greater control of networking hardware. It is great to see the next step happen and have a true-blue open linux NOS as an option. Next we need to drive an OPEN software and application ecosystem.
    I really like the way J.R. Rivers laid it out in his recent democratizing capacity post, it isnt about mainframes or networking or even technology, its simply the way that economic markets work, and we need maturity in our market: http://cumulusnetworks.com/blog/detail/democratizing-capacity-or-how-to-interpret-cisco-math/

    One thing to mention is this does not mean any end to Dell’s own NOS, Dell will continue to invest heavily and lead with it for our enterprise solutions. Many enterprises are linux-heavy devops environments and need a solution that can handle traditional enterprise needs while helping enterprises move towards the next-generation of applications, tools and operational practices and for this I personally think Dell has the best solution in the industry with Active Fabric.

    But, I am a Dell employee – which could imply bias 😉 (all comments are my own) but, thats what I love about being able to dig into these subjects on a deeper level.

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