Cumulus Networks Casts a Shadow On Cisco Strategy

Startup Cumulus Networks announced a Linux-based network operating system that runs on commodity hardware. It could mean clouds ahead for Cisco's proprietary profit engine.

Greg Ferro

June 19, 2013

4 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Cumulus Networks launches today as a software-only networking company with a Linux-based network operating system intended for use on a wide range of network hardware. Today, most customers buy a proprietary device with a proprietary network operating system that is not open and barely interoperable. Cumulus Networks offers an open system that works best for cloud environments because it offers standard tools and software.

VMware created the server commoditization market without replacing Microsoft by inserting its software between the incumbent OS and hardware players. While there has been a lot of discussion about commoditization in networking, it's been harder to see how it could be achieved, because the tight integration of hardware and software makes partial change difficult. A revolution is a more likely outcome.

Network engineers know that commodity hardware is desirable, but it cannot mean multiple network operating systems. Software is the major operational issue in networking, and managing different systems ultimately means operational costs that far exceed the purchase price.

That's why customers have persisted with the various Cisco IOS software platforms (more than 10 of them) in spite of poor software quality and feature bloat. At least Cisco products are familiar and consistent over an extended period of time.

Orchestration and Automation

VMware and OpenStackers will be excited by the opportunity presented by Cumulus Networks. It's been clear for some time that tension between orchestration platforms and Cisco's persistence with its proprietary onePK APIs was something of a problem.

Cisco has been presenting the Open Network Environment (ONE) as the only programmable interface for all Cisco IOS software versions.

This is a major task for Cisco considering the number of different IOS code trains, and the onePK APIs don't seem to be meeting developer expectations.

The Cisco onePK interfaces provide an external API to existing functions in IOS and a container for applets to run, in a very limited way, on the device itself. Although Cisco ONE offers Java and Python libraries, the wider community focuses on tools like Puppet for provisioning the network, servers and applications as a single process.

A hardware device running a Cumulus Network Debian-based Linux OS with standard languages such as Ruby and Python is simpler development target, easier to test and even easier to find developers with the related experience. And automation toolchains like Puppet are immediately ready for use. No custom code required to integrate a vendor-specific API.

Solid Support

Cumulus has achieved an enviable amount of support on launch day for its product from a number of independent hardware makers that are believed to supply much of the equipment to large cloud companies. Success in high-profile and accounts could build a lot of market credibility for Cumulus in a very short time.

Cumulus isn't the only vendor bringing open-source software to networking. Arista Networks, which has established its credibility in the High Frequency Trading market and has success in the banking and finance verticals, also uses a Linux-based operating system. The company has made openness a strong selling point while offering merchant silicon in its own hardware.

Meanwhile, Big Switch introduced the open source Switch Light operating system for switches a few months back.

Cisco Killer?

Claims of Cumulus being a "Cisco Killer" seem premature, but the sentiment may indicate that many in the networking industry are ready to consider alternatives. James Hamilton accurately summarizes the current problems in networking as unreliable software and overpriced hardware that leads to expensive management, poor interoperability and "frustratingly productive bug farms."

Cisco enjoys a dominant market share of about 70% overall, but a challenge to open the gap between software and hardware could attack the foundation of Cisco's current strategy. Cisco leadership has been marketing a message that software networking increases the cost of the networking, and the last three months has seen multiple product announcements that all focus on hardware. You can be sure the company will defend its market share.

Cumulus Networks says it is shipping product and has customers and vendor partners today. Lots of people who have an interest in changing the network market are publicly supporting the startup. That's as good it gets for the launch of a new product, but now the hard work begins.

About the Author(s)

Greg Ferro

Network Architect & Blogger

Greg has nearly 30 years of experience as an IT infrastructure engineer and has been focused on data networking for about 20, including 12 years as Cisco CCIE. He has worked in Asia and Europe as a network engineer and architect for a wide range of large and small firms in many verticals. He has been writing about networking for more than 20 years and in the media since 2001.

You canemail Gregor follow him on Twitter as@etherealmind. He also writes the technical blogEtherealmind.comand hosts a weekly podcast on data networking atPacket Pushers.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox
More Insights