Extreme-ly Interesting Times In Networking

If you’re a fan of Extreme Networks, the last few months have been pretty exciting for you. Just yesterday, it was announced that Extreme is buying the data center networking business of Brocade for $55 million once the Broadcom acquisition happens. Combined with the $100 million acquisition of Avaya’s campus networking portfolio on March 7th and the purchase of Zebra Wireless (nee Motorola) last September, Extreme is pushing itself into the market as a major player. How is that going to impact the landscape?

Building A Better Business

Extreme has been a player in the wireless space for a while. Their acquisition of Enterasys helped vault them into the mix with other big wireless players. Now, the rounding out of the portfolio helps them complete across the board. They aren’t just limited to playing with stadium wifi and campus technologies now. The campus networking story that was brought in through Avaya was a must to help them compete with Aruba, A Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company. Aruba owns the assets of HPE’s campus networking business and has been leveraging them effectively.

The data center play was an interesting one to say the least. I’ve mused recently that Brocade’s data center business may end up lying fallow once Arris grabbed Ruckus. Brocade had some credibility in very large networks through VCS and the MLX router series, but outside of the education market and specialized SDN deployments it was rare to encounter them. Arista has really dug into Cisco’s market share here and the rest of the players seem to be content to wait out that battle. Juniper is back in the carrier business, and the rest seem to be focusing now on OCP and the pieces that flow logically from that, such as Six Pack, Backpack, and Whatever Facebook Thinks The Next Fast Switch Should Be Called That Ends In “Pack”.

Seeing Extreme come from nowhere to snap up the data center line from Brocade signals a new entrant into the data center crowd. Imagine, if you will, a mosh pit. Lots of people fighting for their own space to do their thing. Two people in the middle have decided to have an all-out fight over their space. Meanwhile, everyone else is standing around watching them. Finally, a new person enters the void of battle to do their thing on the side away from the fistfight that has captured everyone’s attention. This is where Extreme finds itself now.

Not Too Extreme

The key for Extreme now is to tell the “Full Stack” story to customers. Whereas before they had to hand off the high end to another “frenemy” and hope that it didn’t come back to bite them, now Extreme can sell all the way up and down the stack. They have some interesting ideas about SDN that will bear some watching as they begin to build them into their stack. The integration of VCS into their portfolio will take some time, as the way that Brocade does their fabric implementation is a bit different than the rest of the world.

This is also a warning call for the rest of the industry. It’s time to get off the sidelines and choose your position. Arista and Cisco won’t be fighting forever. Cisco is also reportedly looking to create a new OS to bring some functionality to older devices. That means that they can continue and try to innovate while fighting against their competitors. The winner of the Cisco and Arista battle is inconsequential to the rest of the industry right now. Either Arista will be wiped off the map and a stronger Cisco will pick a new enemy, or Arista will hurt Cisco and pull even with them in the data center market, leaving more market share for others to gobble up.

Extreme stands a very good chance of picking up customers with their approach. Customers that wouldn’t have considered them in the past will be lining up to see how Avaya campus gear will integrate with Enterasys wireless and Brocade data center gear. It’s not all the different from the hodge-podge approach that many companies have picked for years to lower costs and avoid having a single vendor solution. Now, those lower cost options are available in a single line of purple boxes.


Tom’s Take

Who knew we were going to get a new entrant into the Networking Wars for the tidy sum of $155 million? Feels like it should have cost more than that, but given the number of people holding fire sales to get rid of things they have to divest before pending acquisition or pending dissolution, it really doesn’t come as much surprise. Someone had to buy these pieces and put them together. I think Extreme is going to turn some heads and make some for some interesting conversations in the next few months. Don’t count them out just yet.

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Cisco Just Killed The CLI

DeadCLI

Gallons of virtual ink have been committed to virtual paper in the last few days with regards to Cisco’s lawsuit against Arista Networks.  Some of it is speculating on the posturing by both companies.  Other writers talk about the old market vs. the new market.  Still others look at SDN as a driver.

I didn’t just want to talk about the lawsuit.  Given that Arista has marketed EOS as a “better IOS than IOS” for a while now, I figured Cisco finally decided to bite back.  They are fiercely protective of IOS and they have to be because of the way the trademark laws in the US work.  If you don’t go after people that infringe you lose your standing to do so and invite others to do it as well.  Is Cisco’s timing suspect? One does have to wonder.  Is this about knocking out a competitor? It’s tough to say.  But one thing is sure to me.  Cisco has effectively killed the command line interface (CLI).

“Industry Standards”

EOS is certainly IOS-like.  While it does introduce some unique features (see the NFD3 video here), the command syntax is very much IOS.  That is purposeful.  There are two broad categories of CLIs in the market:

  • IOS-like – EOS, HP Procurve, Brocade, FTOS, etc
  • Not IOS-like – Junos, FortiOS, D-Link OS, etc

What’s funny is that the IOS-like interfaces have always been marketed as such.  Sure, there’s the famous “industry standard” CLI comment, followed by a wink and a nudge.  Everyone knows what OS is being discussed.  It is a plus point for both sides.

The non-Cisco vendors can sell to networking teams by saying that their CLI won’t change.  Everything will be just as easy to configure with just a few minor syntax changes.  Almost like speaking a different dialect of a language.  Cisco gains because more and more engineers become familiar with the IOS syntax.  Down the line, those engineers may choose to buy Cisco based on familiarity with the product.

If you don’t believe that being IOS-like is a strong selling point, take a look PIX and Airespace.  The old PIX OS was transformed into something that looked a lot more like traditional IOS.  In ASA 8.2 they even changed the NAT code to look like IOS.  With Airespace it took a little longer to transform the alien CLI into something IOS-like.  They even lost functionality in doing so, simply to give networking teams an interface that is more friendly to them.  Cisco wants all their devices to run a CLI that is IOS-like.  Junos fans are probably snickering right now.

In calling out Arista for infringing on the “generic command line interface” in patent #7,047,526, Cisco has effectively said that they will start going after companies that copy the IOS interface too well.  This leaves companies in a bit of conundrum.  How can you continue to produce an OS with an “industry standard” CLI and hope that you don’t become popular enough to get noticed by Cisco?  Granted, it seems that all network switching vendors are #2 in the market somehow.  But at what point does being a big enough #2 get the legal hammer brought to bear?  Do you have to be snarky in marketing messages? Attack the 800-pound gorilla enough that you anger them?  Or do you just have to have a wildly successful quarter?

Laid To REST

Instead, what will happen is a tough choice.  Either continue to produce the same CLI year and year and hope that you don’t get noticed or overhaul the whole system.  Those that choose not to play Russian Roulette with the legal system have a further choice to make.  Should we create a new, non-infringing CLI from the ground up? Or scrap the whole idea of a CLI moving forward?  Both of those second choices are going to involve a lot of pain and effort.  One of them has a future.

Rewriting the CLI is a dead-end road.  By the time you’ve finished your Herculean task you’ll find the market has moved on to bigger and better things.  The SDN revolution is about making complex networks easier to program and manage.  Is that going to be accomplished via yet another syntax?  Or will it happen because of REST APIs and programing interfaces?  Given an equal amount of time and effort on both sides, the smart networking company will focus their efforts on scrapping the CLI and building programmability into their devices.  Sure, the 1.0 release is going to sting a little.  It’s going to require a controller and some rough interface conventions.  But building the seeds of a programmable system now means it will be growing while other CLIs are withering on the vine.

It won’t be easy.  It won’t be fun.  And it’s a risk to alienate your existing customer base.  But if your options are to get sued or spend all your effort on a project that will eventually go the way of the dodo your options don’t look all that appealing anyway.  If you’re going to have to go through the upheaval of rewriting something from the ground up, why not choose to do it with an eye to the future?


Tom’s Take

Cisco and Arista won’t be finished for a while.  There will probably be a settlement or a licensing agreement or some kind of capitulation on both sides in a few years time.  But by that point, the fallout from the legal action will have finally finished off the CLI for good.  There’s no sense in gambling that you won’t be the next target of a process server.  The solution will involve innovative thinking, blood, sweat, and tears on the part of your entire development team.  But in the end you’ll have a modern system that works with the new wave of the network.  If nothing else, you can stop relying on the “industry standard” ploy when selling your interface and start telling your customers that you are setting the new standard.