Through the partnership, Dell said it will offer Cumulus Linux network OS to customers as an option for its S6000 and S4810 top-of-rack switches.
The new strategy from Dell is the latest effort to decouple networking hardware from the underlying software. Proponents say disaggregating networking components will enable companies to significantly reduce their data center and network costs as they look to embrace the software-defined networking trend and get away from paying a premium for tightly integrated network stacks from a single vendor.
"I believe there's a big market opportunity for using standard x86 hardware modules for low-cost switches," John Abbott, distinguished analyst at The 451 Group, said via email. "The network is heading in the same direction as servers and storage."
Dell, which is in the midst of re-inventing itself as a private company in the post-PC era, wants to capitalize on that opportunity.
Along those lines, partnerships such as the one with Cumulus will enable Dell to "expand beyond where we’re selling in the general enterprise,” Dell VP Arpit Joshipura recently told Andrew Conry-Murray, director of content and community for Interop. . “It will let us expand into the Web space and large financial services.”
While Dell has not released pricing for its decoupled switches, which it will make available in the next couple of months, Joshipura told Conry-Murray that “depending on volume and support/services needs, customers could see as much as a 20% pricing differential.”
Naturally, Abbott said, Cisco Systems disputes the promise of cost-savings, pointing out that virtualization software layers and operational considerations will drive the costs of open configurations upward. But he noted that Cisco customers also pay for software licensing, maintenance fees and other services.
"For those that don't require this, there are big savings to be had," Abbott said. What's more, he said, "Large vendors such as Dell entering the merchant switch business will start to put pricing pressure onto Cisco, as Dell will provide some of the integration, service and support components currently missing from the do-it-yourself alternatives."
According to Abbott, most of the adoption of technologies like Cumulus running on merchant silicon has come from financial services companies and large Internet data center operators that have the technical know-how to run Linux farms.
[Read Greg Ferro's analysis of Cumulus Networks in "Cumulus Networks: The Pros and Cons of Decoupling."
In fact, in a related development, Facebook recently revealed that it has saved more than $1 billion through its Open Compute Project, in which it has built its own data center infrastructure piece-by-piece using open hardware technologies.
The Open Compute Project was launched in 2011 by Facebook with a focus on developing open data center components such as servers. The group, now a non-profit foundation, expanded its charter last May to include network hardware, focusing on development of an open, OS-agnostic switch.
In November, it unveiled the first set of contributions to the network project from Broadcom, Cumulus, Intel and Mellanox.
Momentum aside, the move toward open data center and networking architectures is far from mainstream. There are still plenty of reasons -- mostly pertaining to network performance -- for organizations to continue using switches built with custom chips and operating systems.
But Abbott said that as merchant chips become more powerful and more open source software components become available, "they will start to address a broader section of the market than before, which will ultimately see proprietary switches used only by the most demanding users."