The third stop for the Network Field Day 3 express took us to the offices of Arista Networks. I’m marginally familiar with Arista from some ancillary conversations I’ve had with their customers. I’m more familiar with one of their employees, Doug Gourlay (@dgourlay) the Vice President of Marketing. Doug was a presenter at Network Field Day 1 and I’ve seen him at some other events as well. He’s also written an article somewhat critical of OpenFlow for Network World, so I was very interested to see what he had to say at an event that has been so involved in OpenFlow recently.
After we got settled at Arista, Doug wasted no time getting down to business. If nothing else can be said about Arista, they’re going to win points by having Doug out front. He’s easily one of the most natural presenters I’ve seen at a Tech Field Day event. He clearly understands his audience and plays to what we want to see from our presentations. Doug offered to can his entire slide deck and have a two hour conversation about things with just a whiteboard for backup. I think this kind of flexibility makes for a very interesting presentation. This time, however, there were enough questions about some of the new things that Arista was doing that slides were warranted.
The presentation opened with a bit about Arista and what they do. Doug was surprising frank in admitting that Arista focused on one thing – making 10 gigabit switches for the data center. His candor in one area was a bit refreshing, “Every company that ever set out to compete against Cisco…and try to be everything to everybody has failed. Utterly.” I don’t think he said this out of deference for his old employer. On the contrary, I think it comes from the idea that too many companies have tried to emulate the multiple product strategy that Cisco has done with their drive into market adjacencies and subsequently scaled back. One might argue some are still actively competing in some areas. However, I think Arista’s decision to focus on a specific product segment gives them a great competitive advantage. This allows the Arista developers to focus on different things, like making switches easier to manage or giving you more information about your network to allow you to “play offense” when figuring out problems like the network being slow. Doug said that the idea is to make the guys in the swivel chairs happy. Having a swiveling chair in my office, I can identify with that.
After a bit more background on Arista, we dove head first into the new darling of their product line – the FX series. The FX series is a departure from the existing Arista switch lines in that it uses Intel silicon instead of the Broadcom Trident chipset in the SX series. It also sports some interesting features like a dual core processor, a 50GB SSD, and an onboard rubidium atomic clock. That last bullet point plays well into one of Arista’s favorite verticals – financial markets. If you can timestamp packets with a precision time stamp from RFC1588, you don’t have to worry about when they arrived or exited the switch. The timestamp tells you when to replay them and how to process them. Plus, 300 picoseconds of drift a year sure beats the hell out of relying on NTP. The biggest feature of the FX series though is the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) onboard. Arista has included these little gems in the FX series to allow customers even more flexibility to program their switches after the fact. For those customers that can program in VHDL or are willing to outsource the programming to one of Arista’s partners, you can make the hardware on this switch do some very interesting things like hardware accelerated video transcoding or inline risk analysis for financial markets. You’re only limited by your imagination and ability to write code. While programming FPGAs won’t be for everyone out there, it fits in rather well with the niche play that Arista is shooting for.
At this point, Arista “brought in a ringer” as Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) put it. Doug introduced us to Andy Bechtolsheim. Andy is currently the Chief Development Officer at Arista. However, he’s probably more well known for another company he founded – Sun Microsystems. He was also the first person to write a check to invest in a little Internet company then known as “Google, Inc.” Needless to say, Andy has seen a lot of Internet history. We only got to talk to him for about half an hour but that time was very well spent. It was interesting to see him analyze things going on in the current market (like OpenFlow) and kind of poke holes all over the place. From any other person it might sound like clever marketing or sour grapes. But from someone like Bechtolsheim it sounded more like the voice of someone that has seen much of this before. I especially liked his critique of those in academics creating a “perfect network” and seeing it fail in implementation because people don’t really build networks like that in real life. There’s a lot of wisdom in the above video and I highly recommend a viewing or two.
The remainder of our time at Arista was a demo of Arista’s EOS platform that runs the switches. Doug and his engineer/developer Andre wanted to showcase some of the things that make EOS so special. EOS is currently running a Fedora Core 2.6.32 Linux kernel as the heart of the operating system. It also allows you to launch a bash shell to interact with the system. One of the keys here is that you can use Linux programs to aid in troubleshooting. Like, say, running tcpdump on a switchport to analyze traffic going in and out. Beats trying to load up Wireshark, huh? The other neat thing was the multi-switch CLI enabled via XMPP. By connecting to a group of switches you can issue commands to each of them simultaneously to query things like connected ports or even issue upgrades to the switches. This answered a lingering question I had from NFD1. I thought to myself, “Sure, having your switches join and XMPP chat room is cool. But besides novelty, what’s the point?” This shows me the power of using standard protocols to drive innovation. Why reinvent the wheel when you can simply leverage something like XMPP to do something that I haven’t seen from any other switch vendor. You can even lock down the multi-switch CLI to prevent people from issuing a reload command to a switch group. That prevents someone from being malicious and crashing your network at the height of business. It also protects you from your own stupidity so that you don’t do the same thing inadvertently. There’s even more fun things from EOS, such as being able to display the routes on a switch at a given point in time historically. Thankfully for the NFD3 delegates, we’re going to get our chance to play around with all the cool things that EOS is capable of, as Arista provided us with a USB stick containing a VM of EOS. I hope I get the chance to try it out and put it through some interesting paces.
Odds are good that without Network Field Day, I would never have come into contact with Arista. Their primary market segment isn’t one that I play into very much in my day job. I am glad to have the opportunity to finally see what they have to offer. The work that they are doing not only with software but with hardware like FPGAs and onboard atomic clocks shows attention to detail that is often missed by other vendors. The ability to learn their OS in a VM on my machine is just icing on the cake. I’m looking forward to seeing what EOS is capable of in my own time. And while I’m not sure whether or not I’ll ever find an opportunity to use their equipment in the near future, chance does favor the prepared mind.
Tech Field Day Disclaimer
Arista was a sponsor of Network Field Day 3. As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 3. In addition, they provided me a USB drive containing marketing collateral and copies of the presentation as well as a copy of EOS in a virtual machine. The USB drive also functioned as a bottle opener. They did not ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review/analysis. The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.