At the core of the software defined networking movement are two ideas with huge appeal. The first is that by programming your network you can enable new applications and simplify others to improve scalability and flexibility while creating a system that's easier to manage. The second is that by removing the need for proprietary intelligence in every switch, you'll save money on the networking hardware and have a greater range of vendors to choose from. To date, most of the discussion has been on the first point--the benefits of programmability.
Now, Cumulus Networks is taking a stab at the second point--disintermediating the installed vendor base with commodity hardware that presents a consistent programmable and manageable interface.
Cumulus Networks has announced a version of Linux that it has crafted to run on the OEM hardware produced by companies such as Quanta, Accton and Agema, none of which are household names in networking. These are the white box manufacturers often used by networking and appliance vendors. Network and appliances vendors take what is essentially commodity hardware and install their own proprietary software on top.
Today, if you want to create a SDN-based infrastructure, you go to the same old networking vendors and you pay for the same old hardware that's been SDN-enabled. You're still paying for all the proprietary software that makes a Cisco, HP, Brocade, Juniper or Extreme switch unique. But when you put that switch into your SDN infrastructure, you're largely turning off all that expensive proprietary goodness--or bloat, depending on your point of view.
[Cumulus has a chance to disrupt the networking market like VMware upended the server market. Find out how in Cumulus Networks Casts a Shadow on Cisco Strategy.]
Now with Cumulus and the switching OEMs, you can buy and build your network like Facebook and Google do. Cumulus is targeting service providers and large cloud companies out of the gate, but enterprises may also be attracted to the lower cost of data center networking gear. If compelling applications such as load balancing and security services are developed for the Cumulus platform, Cumulus may threaten Cisco and other network incumbents in the enterprise market.
As part of its announcement, Cumulus wrangled quotes from industry heavyweights Broadcom and VMware, and cloud builders such as Cloudscaling, CFEngine, Metacloud, Opscode, Piston Cloud and PLUMgrid. For Broadcom, announcements like this help cement its position as the Intel of networking. Its chips, along with those from a few competitors, are the merchant silicon that enable and open systems like Cumulus'.
For VMware, this provides one more point in enterprise networks where it can provide the key management software. The cloud builders love the idea of a Linux OS running on the nodes they manage. It provides them with an open environment and familiar constructs that can be easily extended as they need.
Cumulus says major service providers are already using its version of Linux and switches in their networks. It may take a while before all of the players are ready to sell to typical enterprise customers, but the technology is very promising and goes a long way toward moving the SDN vision toward reality for a more mainstream audience.