My Thoughts on Dell and Force 10

Big announcement today concerning Michael Dell’s little computer company and their drive to keep up with the Joneses in the data center.  Dell has been a player in the server market for many years, but in the data center they are quickly losing out to the likes of HP, Cisco, and even IBM.  Until they hired away HP’s chief blade architect a few years ago, they weren’t even interested in blade servers/enclosures.  Instead, they relied on the tried-and-true model of 1U rack-mounted servers everywhere.  That has all changed recently with the explosion of high-density server enclosures becoming the rage with customers.  Now, the push seems to be headed toward offering a soup-to-nuts portfolio that allows your customers to go to one vendor to get all their data center needs, whether it be storage, servers, or networking.  HP was the first company to really do this, having acquired 3Com last year and integrating their core switching products into the Flex family of data center offerings.  Cisco has always had a strong background in networking, and their UCS product line appears to be coming on strong as of late.  IBM has been a constant bellweather in the market, offering storage and servers, but being forced to outsource their networking offerings.  Dell found itself in the same boat as IBM, relying on Brocade and Juniper as OEM partners to offer their networking connectivity for anything beyond simple low-end ports, which are covered by the Dell PowerConnect line.  However, the days of OEM relationships are quickly drying up, as the bigger vendors are on an acquisition spree and the little fish in the market are becoming meals for hungry vendors.

Dell has enjoyed a very strong relationship with Brocade in the past, and the positioning of Brocade as a strong player in the data center made them a very logical target for Dell’s pocketbook.  In fact, it had been reported several weeks ago that a deal between Dell and Brocade was all but done.  So, imagine the surprise of everyone when Dell announced on July 20th that they were buying Force10 Networks, a smaller vendor that specializes in high-performance switching for markets such as stock market trading floors.  To say that my Twitter stream erupted was an understatement.  We all knew that Dell was going to buy someone, but most figured it would be Brocade.  I even ranked Arista ahead of Force10 as the likely target of Dell’s acquisition fever.  I just figured that Force10 was a little too small and specialized to garner much attention from the big boys.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that Force10 makes some great products.  Their presentation at Network Field Day was well received, and they several customers that will swear by their performance.

What I expected from Dell was a purchase that would serve them across their whole network portfolio.  Brocade would have given them a replacement for the PowerConnect line at the low end as well as data center and fibre channel connectivity options.  They were already OEM-ing Brocade’s product line, so why not buy them outright?  I think that comes down the fact that EVERYONE is OEM-ing from Brocade (or so it seems).  EMC, IBM, and even HP have products from Brocade in their offerings.  If Dell had purchased Brocade outright, it would have forced those vendors to look elsewhere for fibre channel connectivity.  This would either be due to a desire to not inflate a competitor’s bottom line, or perhaps later if and when Dell decided to change the rules of how other vendors OEM from them.  This move away from a Dell-owned Brocade would have really muddied the waters for those inside Dell that wanted Brocade for it’s revenue stream.  As it is, I’m pretty sure that Dell is going to scale back on the B-series PowerConnect stuff everywhere but the fibre channel line and use Force10 as the main data center core technology group, while at the same time maintaining the PowerConnect line at the lower end for campus connectivity.  This will allow them to keep their margins on the PowerConnect side while at the same time increasing them in the data center, since they’ll no longer have to pay OEM fees to Brocade.

Whither Juniper?

The next most popular topic of conversation after Force10 involved…Juniper.  Juniper was a long-shot target of acquisition for Dell (and others), and now that the only major server vendor without a solid networking background is IBM, people are staring to ask who, if not IBM, is going to buy Juniper?  And when?

Folks, Juniper isn’t an easy acquisition.  Add in the fact that the IBM you see today isn’t the IBM of your father (or my early networking days for that matter), and you’ll see that Juniper is best left to its own devices for the time being.  Juniper isn’t really what I would consider a “data center switching” company like Force10 or Arista.  They tend to fall more in the service provider/campus LAN market to me.  I think that if someone like IBM could pony up the billions to buy them, they’d quickly find themselves lost in what to do with Juniper’s other technologies.  Buying Juniper for their data center offerings would be like buying a Porsche because you like the stereo.  You’re missing the point.  I’d wager money that Juniper is more likely to buy twenty more companies before they get bought themselves.  Their networking business is growing by leaps and bounds right now, and saddling them with a large company as ‘oversight’ would probably cripple their innovation.

IBM already owns a high-speed, low-latency networking company that they bought about this time last year, Blade Networks.  Why should they go out and spend more money right now?  Especially if they are happy with their OEM partnerships with Brocade and Juniper (like Dell has been doing previously)?  IBM has shed so much of what it used to be that it no longer resembles the monster that it once was.  Gone are the PCs and Thinkpads and low-end servers.  Instead, they’ve moved to the blade and high end server market, with storage to complement.  They used to be number one, but have long since been passed by HP.  Now they find themselves fighting off their old foe Dell and this new upstart, Cisco.  Does it really make sense for them to mortgage the family farm to buy Juniper, only to let it die off?  I’d rather see them make a play for a smaller company, maybe even one as well-known as Arista.  It would fit the profile a bit better than buying Juniper.  That’s more HP’s style.

Tom’s Take

I fully expect the trumpets of Dell’s new-found data center switching expertise to start sounding as soon as the ink is dry on Force10.  In fact, don’t be surprised to see it come up during Tech Field Day 7 next month in Austin, TX.  I think Dell will get a lot of mileage out of their new stalking horse, as most of the complaints I’ve heard about Force10 come from their sales staff, and we all know how great Dell is at selling.

For now, Juniper needs to sit back and bide its time, perhaps stroking a white Persian cat.  They can go down the interoperability road, telling their customers that since they have strong OEM relationships with many vendors, they can tie all these new switches together will very little effort.  They shouldn’t worry themselves with the idea that anyone is going to buy them anytime soon.

An Outsider’s View of Junosphere

It’s no secret that learning a vendor’s equipment takes lots and lots of time at the command line interface (CLI).  You can spend all the time you want pouring over training manuals and reference documentation, but until you get some “stick time” with the phosphors of a console screen, it’s probably not going to stick.  When I was studying for my CCIE R&S, I spent a lot of time using GNS3, a popular GUI for configuring Dynamips, the Cisco IOS simulator developed by the community.  There was no way I would be about to afford the equipment to replicate the lab topologies, as my training budget wasn’t very forgiving outside the test costs and any equipment I did manage to scrounge up usually went into production soon after that.  GNS3 afforded me the opportunity to create my own lab environments to play with protocols and configurations.  I’d say 75-80% of my lab work for the CCIE was done on GNS3.  The only things I couldn’t test were hardware-specific configurations, like the QoS found on Catalyst switches, or things that caused massive processor usage, like configuring NTP on more than two routers.  I would have killed to have had access to something a little more stable.

Cisco recently released a virtual router offering based around IOS-on-Unix (IOU), a formerly-internal testing tool that was leaked and cracked for use by non-Cisco people.  The official IOU simulation from Cisco revolves around their training material, so using it to setup your own configurations is very difficult.  Juniper Networks, on the other hand, has decided to release their own emulated OS environment built around their own hardware operating system, Junos.  This product is called Junosphere.  I was recently lucky enough to take part in a Packet Pushers episode where we talked with some of the minds behind Junosphere.  What follows here are my thoughts about the product based on this podcast and some people in the industry that I’ve talked to.

Junosphere is a cloud-based emulation platform being offered by Juniper for the purpose of building a lab environment for testing or education purposes.  The actual hardware being emulated inside Junosphere is courtesy of VJX, a virtual Junos instance that allows you to see the routing and security features of the product.  According to this very thorough Q&A from Chris Jones, VJX is not simply a hacked version of Junos running in a VM.  Instead, it is a fully supported release track code that simply runs on virtual hardware instead of something with blinking lights.  This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities down the road, very similarly to Arista Networks vEOS virtualized router.  VJX evolved out of code that Juniper developers originally used to test the OS itself, so it has strong roots in the ability to emulate the Junos environment.  Riding on top of VJX is a web interface that allows you to drag-and-drop network topologies to create testing environments, as well as the ability to load preset configurations, such as those that you might get from Juniper to coincide with their training materials.  To reference this to something people might be more familiar with, VJX is like Dyanmips, and the Junosphere lab configuration program is more like GNS3.

Junosphere can be purchased from a Juniper partner or directly from Juniper just like you would with any other Juniper product.  The reservation system is currently set up in such a way as to allot 24-hour blocks of time for Junosphere use.  Note that those aren’t rack tokens or split into 8-hour sessions.  You get 24 continuous hours of access per SKU purchase.  Right now, the target audience for Junosphere seems to be the university/academic environment.  However, I expect that Juniper will start looking at other markets once they’ve moved out of the early launch phase of their product.  I’m very much aware that this is all very early in the life cycle of Junosphere and emulated enviroments, so I’m making sure to temper my feelings with a bit of reservation.

As it exists right now, Junosphere would be a great option for the student wanting to learn Junos for the first time in a university or trade school type of setting.  By having continuous access to the router environments, these schools can add the cost of Junosphere rentals onto the student’s tuition costs and allow them 24-hour access to the router pods for flexible study times.  For self-study oriented people like me, this first iteration is less compelling.  I tend to study at odd hours of the night and whenever I have a free moment, so 24-hour access isn’t nearly as important to me as having blocks of 4 or 8 hours might be.  I understand the reasons behind Juniper’s decision to offer the time the way they have.  By offering 24-hour blocks, they can work out the kinks of VJX being offered to end users that might not be familiar with the quirks of emulated environments, unlike the developers that were the previous user base for the product.

Tom’s Take

I know that I probably need to learn Junos at some point in the near future.  It makes all the sense in the world to try and pick it up in case I find myself staring at an SRX in the future.  With emulated OS environments quickly becoming the norm, I think that Junosphere has a great start on providing a very important service.  As I said on Packet Pushers, to make it more valuable to me, it’s going to need to be something I can use on my local machine, ala GNS3 or IOU.  That way, I can fire it up as needed to test things or to make sure I remember the commands to configure IS-IS.  Giving me the power to use it without the necessity of being connected to the Internet or needing to reserve timeslots on a virtual rack is the entire reason behind emulating the software in the first place.  I know that Junosphere is still in its infancy when it comes to features and target audiences.  I’m holding my final judgement of the product until we get to the “run” phase of the traditional “crawl, run, walk” mentality of service introduction.  It helps to think about Junosphere as a 1.0 product.  Once we get the version numbers up a little higher, I hope that Juniper will have delivered a product that will enable me to learn more about their offerings.

For more information on Junosphere, check out the Junosphere information page at http://www.juniper.net/us/en/products-services/software/junos-platform/junosphere/.