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HP Spearheads Open Source Network OS Initiative

The trend towards open networking picked up more steam today with the launch of an industry initiative to develop a new open source network operating system. Led by HP, the OpenSwitch Community is creating the Linux-based OpenSwitch NOS for data center switches.

Accton Technology, Broadcom, Intel and VMware teamed with HP on the initiative, which aims to provide data center operators with more choice and flexibility in networking gear.

Mark Carroll, chief technology officer for HP Networking, told me in an interview that OpenSwitch NOS is fully featured with Layer 2 and Layer 3 protocol support, and built to be highly programmable and reliable. It supports a variety of management interfaces, including CLI and RESTful APIs. The NOS will initially support top-of-rack data center switches.

Carroll said the NOS is designed to provide a flexible foundation for developers to create data center environments that meet the particular needs of their business. The initial developer release of the code is available now, and HP expects it will be the second half of next year when hardened versions are deployed.

Facebook and other Internet giants have led the charge on open networking, saying traditional, proprietary networking devices with tightly integrated hardware and software didn’t meet their needs. So they developed their own networking equipment for better flexibility and scalability.

The trend has led to the rise of white-box switches, with commodity hardware that can run software from the likes of Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, Pluribus Networks, and Pica8. A number of vendors – including HP – offer branded white-box switches, a trend labeled "brite-box" by Gartner.

OpenSwitch NOS isn’t the first open source NOS. Big Switch last year contributed Open Network Linux, the Linux distribution that runs under its commercial Switch Light OS, to the Facebook-led Open Compute Project. This year, Ubuntu announced the availability of 'snappy’ Ubuntu Core for white-box and OCP switches.

Dan Conde, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, said HP didn’t provide him with many details as to how OpenSwitch NOS is different than ONL, other than to say than its use of the Open vSwitch Database Management (OVSDB) protocol is the key differentiator and that plans call for extending it beyond top-of-rack to larger scale uses.

"There’s a lot of potential given there’s so many heavy hitters, but the details are sketchy since it’s still in early phases of this open source project," he said in an interview. The initial release is very conventional, he noted, adding that he looks forward to seeing more details about the project.

The OpenSwitch NOS announcement also raises questions about HP’s partnerships for its brite-boxes. The company teams with Cumulus for its Linux-based network operating system (NOS) and recently partnered with Pica8 to certify the startup's NOS for HP’s Altoline switches.

Carroll said the partnerships will continue, but added that HP plans to create its own versions of the OpenSwitch NOS, integrate it with other software up the stack and provide services around it.

Andrew Lerner, a research director at Gartner, said while the research firm doesn’t expect significant adoption of the OpenSwitch NOS in the next 18 months, it could have far-ranging effects in the long term.  

"If this gains traction, there are major ramifications for both well-established incumbents and startup networking vendors -- both from a product and business model perspective," he told me in an email. "For customers, [an] open-source based NOS has the capability to reduce costs and drive a more rapid innovation cycle into the networking market."

He added that OpenSwitch is likely to speed the white-box and brite-box switch movement as it is backed by a number of trusted mainstream IT companies. "We’re already seeing ODM-based switch ports (white-box/brite-box) accounting for 7% of the total ports shipped in the data center, and anticipate this growing to 10% sometime in 2016," he said.