Dell Wants To Build The Network Hypervisor

[entity display=”Dell” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell[/entity] believes the future of networking will mirror that of compute: software defined, virtualized, and based on standards.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Adnan Bhutta, [entity display=”Dell's” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell’s[/entity] Global Strategy Director of Open Networking, who told me that [entity display=”Dell's” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell’s[/entity] vision for the future of networking involves a de-coupling of physical hardware from software, and that cloud attitudes are driving much of the change.

“I think the networking industry is going through the same things that the compute industry went through fifteen years ago,” says Bhutta. “People had these mainframe models. Essentially you had [entity display=”IBM” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”ibm” ticker=”IBM” exchange=”NYSE” natural_id=”fred/company/2217″]IBM[/entity], you had Sun, making vertically integrated server architectures, and the industry pretty much moved to the x86 based architecture.” In [entity display=”Dell's” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell’s[/entity] vision of the future, networking will go the same way, decoupling the server hardware from the software that runs on it.

Until recently, your choice of networking operating system has been tightly coupled to your choice of hardware: Cisco switches ran IOS, Juniper switches ran Junos, etc. “Traditionally, like a year and a half ago, you had to buy our switch, our software, everything from us,” says Bhutta. Now you can buy switch hardware from [entity display=”Dell” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell[/entity], but you can choose between [entity display=”Dell's” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell’s[/entity] switching OS, or an operating system from Cumulus, BigSwitch, IP Infusion, or Pluribus.

Bhutta also highlighted [entity display=”Dell's” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell’s[/entity] attempt to build the x86 of the networking world. [entity display=”Dell” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell[/entity]–along with [entity display=”Microsoft” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”microsoft” ticker=”MSFT” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/2854″]Microsoft[/entity], [entity display=”Facebook” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”facebook” ticker=”FB” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/15317″]Facebook[/entity], [entity display=”Broadcom” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”broadcom” ticker=”BRCM” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/707″]Broadcom[/entity], [entity display=”Intel” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”intel” ticker=”INTC” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/2207″]Intel[/entity] and Mellanox–have defined the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), an “abstraction interface for switching ASICs” (you can download the specification here). Part of the Open Compute Project started by [entity display=”Facebook” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”facebook” ticker=”FB” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/15317″]Facebook[/entity], SAI is an attempt to divorce switching operating system software from switch silicon, in much the same way that the x86 standard divorces the internals of an [entity display=”Intel” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”intel” ticker=”INTC” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/2207″]Intel[/entity] or AMD chip implementation from the operating systems that run on them.

The use of such a standard would make it significantly easier for network software vendors such as [entity display=”Dell” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” key=”dell” natural_id=”fred/company/1260″]Dell[/entity], or Cumulus–or even Microsoft–to concentrate on software enhancements, while silicon vendors like [entity display=”Broadcom” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”broadcom” ticker=”BRCM” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/707″]Broadcom[/entity], [entity display=”Intel” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”false” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”intel” ticker=”INTC” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/2207″]Intel[/entity], and Mellanox can concentrate on making ASICs that forward packets faster. Not incidentally, it would also help to commoditize the switch port business which would help these vendors at the expense of Cisco.

“The bottom line to all of this is ease of management and deployment,” says Bhutta. “Software defined networking’s main value proposition is that it has to save you OpEx.” He cites a comparison between the number of people required to administer servers now compared to what it used to be, and then highlights the disparity with network administration. “If you look at the number of server admins you have per server versus the number of network admins you have per switch, the numbers are mind-boggling!” he says. “You have a lot fewer people to manage a lot more servers than you have on the networking side.”

Bhutta is referring to the highly virtualized x86 server world of today, while networks more closely resemble the pre-virtualization days. VLAN may stand for Virtual Local Area Network, but the devices are more akin to a single server running many applications rather than a physical device running multiple instances of a networking operating system. If the equivalent of x86 for networking were to become widespread, then imagine what the equivalent of [entity display=”VMware” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” activated=”false” deactivated=”true” key=”vmware” ticker=”VMW” exchange=”NYSE” natural_id=”fred/company/5897″]VMware[/entity] for networking might look like.

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