My Thoughts on Dell, EMC, and Networking

Dell.EMC.logo.storage

The IT world is buzzing about the news that Dell is acquiring EMC for $67 billion. Storage analysts are talking about the demise of the 800-lb gorilla of storage. Virtualization people are trying to figure out what will happen to VMware and what exactly a tracking stock is. But very little is going on in the networking space. And I think that’s going to be a place where some interesting things are going to happen.

It’s Not The Network

The appeal of the Dell/EMC deal has very little to do with networking. EMC has never had any form of enterprise networking, even if they were rumored to have been looking at Juniper a few years ago. The real networking pieces come from VMware and NSX. NSX is a pure software networking implementation for overlay networking implemented in virtualized networks.

Dell’s networking team was practically nonexistent until the Force10 acquisition. Since then there has been a lot of work in building a product to support Dell’s data center networking aspirations. Good work has been done on the hardware front. The software on the switches has had some R&D done internally, but the biggest gains have been in partnerships. Dell works closely with Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks to provide alternative operating systems for their networking hardware. This gives users the ability to experiment with new software on proven hardware.

Where does the synergy lie here? Based on a conversation I had on Monday there are some that believe that Cumulus is a loser in this acquisition. The idea is that Dell will begin to use NSX as the primary data center networking piece to drive overlay adoption. Companies that have partnered with Dell will be left in the cold as Dell embraces the new light and way of VMware SDN. Interesting idea, but one that is a bit flawed.

Maybe It’s The Network

Dell is going to be spending a lot of time integrating EMC and all their federation companies. Business needs to continue going forward in other areas besides storage. Dell Networking will see no significant changes in the next six months. Life goes on.

Moving forward, Dell Networking is still an integral piece of the data center story. As impressive as software networking can be, servers still need to plug into something. You can’t network a server without a cable. That means hardware is still important even at a base level. That hardware needs some kind of software to control it, especially in the NSX model without a centralized controller deciding how flows will operating on leaf switches. That means that switches will still need operating systems.

The question then shifts to whether Dell will invest heavily in R&D for expanding FTOS and PowerConnect OS or if they will double down on their partnership with Cumulus and Big Switch and let NSX do the heavy lifting above the fray. The structure of things would lead one to believe that Cumulus will get the nod here, as their OS is much more lightweight and enables basic connectivity and control of the switches. Cumulus can help Dell integrate the switch OS into monitoring systems and put more of the control of the underlay network at the fingertips of the admins.

I think Dell is going to be so busy integrating EMC into their operations that the non-storage pieces are going to be starved for development dollars. That means more reliance on partnerships in the near term. Which begets a vicious cycle that causes in-house software to fall further and further behind. Which is great for the partner, in this case Cumulus.

By putting Dell Networking into all the new offerings that should be forthcoming from a combined Dell/EMC, Dell is putting Cumulus Linux in a lot of data centers. That means familiarizing these networking folks with them more and more. Even if Dell decides not to renew the Cumulus Partnership after EMC and VMware are fully ingested it means that the install base of Cumulus will be bigger than it would have been otherwise. When those devices are up for refresh the investigation into replacing them with Cumulus-branded equipment is one that could generate big wins for Cumulus.


Tom’s Take

Dell and EMC are going to touch every facet of IT when they collide. Between the two of them they compete in almost every aspect of storage, networking, and compute as well as many of the products that support those functions. Everyone is going to face rapid consolidation from other companies banding together to challenge the new 800-lb gorilla in the space.

Networking will see less impact from this merger but it will be important nonetheless. If nothing, it will drive Cisco to start acquiring at a faster rate to keep up. It will also allow existing startups to make a name for themselves. There’s even the possibility of existing networking folks leaving traditional roles and striking out on their own to found startups to explore new ideas. The possibilities are limitless.

The Dell/EMC domino is going to make IT interesting for the next few months. I can’t wait to see how the chips will fall for everyone.

Does EMC Need A Network?

EMCnetwork

Network acquisitions are in the news once again. This time, the buyer is EMC. In a blog article from last week, EMC is reportedly mulling the purchase of either Brocade or Arista to add a networking component to its offerings. While Arista would be a good pickup for EMC to add a complete data center networking practice, one must ask themselves “Does EMC Really Need A Network?”

Hardware? For What?

The “smart money” says that EMC needs a network offering to help complete their vBlock offering now that the EMC/Cisco divorce is in the final stages. EMC has accelerated those plans from the server side by offering EVO:RAIL as an option for VSPEX now. Yes, VSPEX isn’t a vBlock. But it’s a flexible architecture that will eventually supplant vBlock when the latter is finally put out to pasture once the relationship between Cisco and EMC is done.

EMC being the majority partner in VCE has incentive to continue offering the package to customers to make truckloads of cash. But long term, it makes more sense for EMC to start offering alternatives to a Cisco-only network. There have been many, many assurances that vBlock will not be going away any time soon (almost to the level of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks“). But to me, that just means that the successor to vBlock will be called something different, like nBlock or eBlock.

Regardless of what the next solution is called, it will still need networking components installed in order to facilitate communication between the components in the system. EMC has been looking at networking companies in the past, especially Juniper (again with much protesting to the contrary). It’s obvious they want to have a hardware solution to offer alongside Cisco for future converged systems. But do they really need to?

How About A BriteBlock?

EMC needs a network component. NSX is a great control system that EMC already owns (and is already considering for vBlocks), but as Joe Onisick (@JOnisick) is fond of pointing out, NSX doesn’t actually forward packets. So we still need something to fling bits back and forth. But why does it have to be something EMC owns?

Whitebox switching is making huge strides toward being a data center solution. Cumulus, Pluribus, and Big Switch have created stable platforms that offer several advantages over more traditional offerings, not the least of which is cost. The ability to customize the OS to a degree is also attractive to people that want to integrate with other systems.

Could you imagine running a Cumulus switch in a vBlock and having the network forwarding totally integrated with the management platform? Or how about running Big Switch’s Big Fabric as the backplane for vBlock? These solutions would work with minimal effort on the part of EMC and very little tuning required by the end user. Add in the lowered acquistion cost of the network hardware and you end up with a slightly healthier profit margin for EMC.

Is The Answer A FaceBlock?

The other solution is to use OpenCompute Project switches in a vBlock offering. OCP is gaining momentum, with Cumulus and Big Switch both making big contributions recently at the 2015 OCP Summit. Add in the buzz around the Wedge switch and new Six Pack chassis and you have the potential to have significant network performance for a relative pittance.

Wedge and Six Pack are not without their challenges. Even running Cumulus Linux or Open Network Linux from Big Switch, it’s going to take some time to integrate the network OS with the vBlock architecture. NSX can alleviate some of these challenges, but it’s more a matter of time than technology. EMC is actually very good at taking nascent technology from startups and integrating with their product lines. Doing the same with OCP networking would not be much different from their current R&D style.

Another advantage of using OCP networking comes from the effect that EMC would have to the project. By having a major vendor embrace OCP as the spine of their architecture, Facebook gains the advantages of reduced component costs and increased development. Even if EMC doesn’t release their developments back into the community, they will attract more developers to the project and magnify the work being done. This benefits EMC as well, as every OCP addition flows back into their offerings as well.


Tom’s Take

We’re running out of big companies to buy other companies. Through consolidation and positioning, the mid-tier has grown to the point where they can’t easily be bought by anyone other than Cisco. Thanks to Aruba, HP is going to be busy with that integration until well after the company split. EMC is the last company out there that has the resources to buy someone as big as Arista or Brocade.

The question that the people at EMC need to ask themselves is: Do we really need hardware? Or can we make everything work without pulling out the checkbook? Cisco will always been an option for vBlock, just not necessarily the cheapest solution. EMC can find solutions to increase their margins, but it’s going to take some elbow grease and a few thinking caps to integrate whitebox or OCP-style offerings.

EMC does need a network. It just may not need to be one they own.

 

Vendor Whitebox Switches – Better Together?

ChocoPeanut

Whitebox switching has moved past the realm of original device manufacturers and has been taken up by traditional networking vendors. Andre Kindness (@AndreKindness) of Forrester recently posted that he fields several calls from his customers every day asking about a particular vendor’s approach to whitebox switching. But what do these vendor offerings look like? And can we predict how a given vendor will address the whitebox market?

Chocolate In My Peanut Butter

Dell was one of the first traditional networking vendors to announce a whitebox switch offering that decoupled the operating system from the switching hardware. Dell offered packages from Cumulus Linux and Big Switch Networks alongside their PowerConnect lineup. This makes sense when you consider that the operating system on the switch has never been the strong suit of Dell. The PowerConnect OS is not very popular with network engineers, being very dissimilar from more popular CLIs such as Cisco IOS and its look-alikes.  Their attempts to capitalize on the popularity of Force Ten OS (FTOS) and adapt it or use on PowerConnect switches has been difficult at best, due to the divide been hardware architecture of the two platforms.

What Dell is very good at is offering hardware at a greatly reduced cost. By utilizing this strength, they can enter the whitebox market successfully by partnering with OS vendors to provide customer options. This also gives them time to adapt FTOS to more switches and attempt to drive acquisition posts down once the port of FTOS to PowerConnect is complete.

Peanut Butter In My Chocolate

What happens when a vendor sees software as their strength? You get an announcement like the one last week from Juniper Networks. Juniper has put a significant amount of time and effort into Junos. The FreeBSD base of the system gives it the adaptability that Cumulus enjoys. Since Juniper sees Junos as a huge advantage, their oath to whitebox switching was to offer hardware that reduces the acquisition cost. Porting Junos to run on the OCP-based OCX1100 allows Juniper to use silicon that is more in line with merchant offering price points. The value to the customer comes from existing experience with Junos allowing for reduced learning time on the new platform.

So how will the rest of the market adopt whitebox switching offerings? HP will likely go the same route as Dell, as their software picture is murky with products split evenly between HP Procurve OS and 3Com/H3C Comware. HP has existing silicon manufacturing facilities that allow for economy of scale to reduce acquisition costs to the customer. Conversely, Brocade will likely leverage existing Vyatta development and investment in projects like OpenDaylight to standardize their whitebox offerings on software while offering OCP-style hardware platforms.

The 800-pound Whitebox Gorilla

And what of Cisco? Cisco had invested significant time and effort into both hardware and software. IOS is being renovated with API access and being ported into containers to broaden the platforms on which it can operate. The Cisco investment in custom silicon development is significant as well, with only the Nexus 3000 and 9000 series using merchant offerings from Broadcom. Their eventual whitebox offering could take any form.

Cisco feels very strongly about keeping IOS and its variants exclusive to Cisco hardware. Given that they sued Arista Networks late last week for patent infringement in EOS, it should be apparent how strongly they feel about IOS. That will be the impetus that pushes them to offering some limited custom silicon that is capable of running third-party operating systems. This allows Cisco to partner closely with one of those developers to ensure peak performance and tight integrations with whatever hardware Cisco includes.  They would likely offer this platform with a bundle of SmartNET support services, recouping the costs of producing the switch with some very high margin services.

The possibility of porting IOS to an OCP-like reference platform is remote at best. A whitebox IOS offering would still carry a high price tag to reflect Cisco R&D and would be priced too high above what customers would be willing to pay for total acquisition cost.  It would also open the door for someone to “port” that version of IOS to run on platforms that it shouldn’t be running on.  At the very least, it will expose Cisco in the market as having too high a price tag on their intellectual property in IOS and give competitors like Juniper and Big Switch ammunition to fight back.


Tom’s Take

When evaluating vendor whitebox offerings, be sure your assessment of the strengths matches theirs. Wide adoption of a given strategy will solidify that approach in the future. Be sure to give feedback to your local account teams and tell them the critical features you need to be supported. That will ensure the vendor has you in mind when the time comes to produce a whitebox offering.  And remember that you always have the option of going your own way.  Nothing says that you have to buy a solution with bundled services from traditional networking vendors.  If you’re willing to fly without a safety net for a while, you can find some great deals on ODM switches and OSes to run on them.