Cumulus Networks Could Be The New Microsoft


When I was at HP Discover last December, I noticed a few people running around wearing Cumulus Networks shirts. That had me a bit curious, as Cumulus isn’t usually on the best of terms with traditional networking vendors unless they have a partnership. After some digging, I found out that HP would be announcing a “britebox” branded whitebox switch soon running Cumulus Linux. I wrote a post vaguely hinting about this in as much detail as I dared leak out.

No surprise that HP has formally announced their partnership with Cumulus. This is a great win for HP in the long run, as it gives customers the option to work with an up-and-coming network operating system (NOS) along side HP support and hardware. Note that the article mentions a hardware manufacturing deal with Accton, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised to learn that Accton had been making a large portion of their switching line already. Just a different sticker on this box.

Written Once, Runs Everywhere

The real winner here is Cumulus. They have partnered with Dell and HP to bring their NOS to some very popular traditional network vendor hardware. Given that they continue to push Cumulus Linux on traditional whitebox hardware, they are positioning themselves the same way that Microsoft did back in the 1980s when the IBM Clone PC market really started to take off.

Microsoft’s master stroke wasn’t building an empire around a GUI. It was creating software that ran on almost every variation of devices in the market. That common platform provided consistency for programmers the world over. You never had to worry about what OS was running on an IBM Clone. You could be almost certain it was MS-DOS. In fact, that commonality of platform is what enabled Microsoft to build their GUI interface on top. While DOS was eventually phased out in favor of WinNT kernels in Windows the legacy of DOS still remains on the command line.

Hardware comes and goes every year. Even with device vendors that are very tied to their hardware, like Apple. Look at the hardware differences between the first iPhone and the latest iPhone 6+. They are almost totally alien. Then look at the operating system running on each of them. They are remarkably similar, especially amazing given the eight year gap between them. That consistency of experience has allowed app developers to be comfortable writing apps that will work for more than one generation of hardware.

Bash Brothers

Cumulus is positioning themselves to do something very similar. They are creating a universal NOS interface to switches. Rather than pinning their hopes on the aging Cisco IOS CLI (and avoiding a potential lawsuit in the process), Cumulus has decided to go with Bash. Bash is almost universal for those that work on Linux, and if you’re an old school UNIX admin it doesn’t take long to adapt to Bash either. That common platform means that you have a legion of trained engineers and architects that know how to use your system.

More importantly, you have a legion of people that know how to write software to extend your system. You can create Bash scripts and programs to do many things. Cumulus even created ifupdown2 to help network admins with simplifying network interface administration. If you can extend the interface of a networking device with relative ease, you’ve started unlocking the key to unlimited expansion.

Think about the number of appliances you use every day that you never know are running Linux. I said previously that Linux won the server war because it is everywhere now and yet you don’t know it’s Linux. In the same way, I can see Cumulus negotiating to get the software offered as an option for both whitebox and britebox switches in the future. Once that happens, you can start to see the implications. If developers are writing apps and programs to extend Cumulus Linux and not the traditional switch OS, consumers will choose the more extensible option if everything else is equal. That means more demand for Cumulus. Which pours more resources into development. Which is how MS-DOS took over the world and led to Windows domination, while OS/2 died a quiet, protracted death.

Tom’s Take

When I first tweeted my thoughts about Cumulus Networks and their potential rise like the folks in Redmond, there was a lot of pushback. People told me to think of them more like Red Hat instead of Microsoft. While their business model does indeed track more closely with Red Hat, I think much of this pushback comes from the negative connotations we have with Windows. Microsoft has essentially been the only game in the x86 market for a very long time. People forget what it was like to run BeOS or early versions of Slackware. Microsoft had almost total domination outside the hobby market.

Cumulus doesn’t have to unseat Cisco to win. They don’t even have to displace the second or third place vendor. By signing deals with as many people as possible to bring Cumulus Linux to the masses, they will win in the long run by being the foundation for where networking will be going in the future.

Editor Note:  A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cumulus created ifupdown, when in fact they created ifupdown2.  Thanks to Matt Stone (@BigMStone) and Todd Craw (@ToddMCraw) for pointing this out to me.


Should Microsoft Buy Big Switch?


Network virtualization is getting more press than ever.  The current trend seems to be pitting the traditional networking companies, like Cisco and Juniper, against the upstarts in the server virtualization companies, like VMware and OpenStack.  To hear the press and analysts talk about it makes one think that these companies represent all there is in the industry.

Whither Microsoft?

One company that seems to have been left out of the conversation is Microsoft.  The stalwarts of Redmond have been turning heads with their rapid pace of innovation to reach parity with VMware’s offerings.  However, when the conversation turns to networking Microsoft is usually left out in the cold.  That’s because their efforts at networking in the past have been…problematic.  They are very service oriented and care little for the world outside their comfortable servers.  That won’t last forever.  VMware will be able to easily shift the conversation away from feature parity with Hyper-V and concentrate on all the networking expertise that it has now that is missing in the competitor.

Microsoft can fix that problem with a small investment.  If you can innovate by building it, you need to buy it.  Microsoft has the cash to buy several startups, even after sinking a load of it into Nokia.  But which SDN-focused company makes the most sense for Microsoft?  I spent a lot of time thinking about this very question and the answer became clear for me:  Microsoft needs to buy Big Switch Networks.

A Window On The Future

Microsoft needs SDN expertise.  They have no current networking experience outside of creating DHCP and DNS services on their platforms.  I mean, did anyone ever use their Network Access Protocol solution as a NAC option?  Microsoft has traditionally created bare bones network constructs to please their server customers.  They think networking is a resource outside their domain, which coincidentally is just how their competitors used to look at it as well.  At least until Martin Casado changed their minds.

Big Switch is a perfect fit for Microsoft.  They have the chops to talk OpenFlow.  Their recent shift away from overlays to software on bare metal would play well as a marketing point against VMware and their “overlays are the best way” message.  They could also help Microsoft do more development on NV-GRE, the also ran to VxLAN.  Ivan Pepelnjak (@IOSHints) was pretty impressed with NV-GRE last December, but it’s dropped of the radar in the wake of VMware embracing VxLAN in NSX.  I think having a bit more development work from the minds at Big Switch would put it back into the minds of some smaller network virtualization companies looking to support something other than the de facto standard.  I know that Big Switch has moved away from the overlay model, but if NV-GRE can easily be adapted to the work Big Switch was doing a few months ago, it would be a great additional offering to the idea of running everything in an SDN-enabled switch OS.

Microsoft will also benefit from the pile of SDN applications that Big Switch has rumored to be sitting around and festering for lack of attention.  Applications like network taps sell Big Switch products now.  With NSX introducing the ideas of integrated load balancers and firewalls into the base product, Big Switch is going to be hard pressed to charge extra for them.  Instead, they’re going to have to go out on a limb and finish developing them past the alpha stage and hope that they are enough to sell more product and recoup the development costs.  With the deep pockets in Redmond, finishing those applications would be a drop in the bucket if it means that the new product can compete directly on an even field with VMware.

Building A Bigger Switch

Big Switch gains in this partnership also.  They get to take some pressure of their overworked development team.  It can’t be easy switching horses in mid-stream, especially when it involves changing your entire outlook on how SDN should be done.  Adding a few dozen more people to the project will allow you to branch out and investigate how integrating software into your ideas could be done.  Big Switch has already done a great job developing Project Floodlight.  Why not let some big brains chew on other ideas in the same vein for a while.

Big Switch could also use the stability of working for an established company.  They have a pretty big target on their backs now that everyone is developing an SDN strategy.  Writing an OS for bare metal switches is going to bring them into contention with Cumulus Networks.  Why not let an OS vendor do some of the heavy lifting?  It would also allow Microsoft’s well established partner program to offer incentives to partners that want to sell white label switches with software from Big Switch to get into networking much more cheaply than before.  Think about federal or educational discounts that Microsoft already gives to customers.  Do you think they’d be excited to see the same kind of consideration when it comes to networking hardware?

Tom’s Take

Little fish either get eaten by bigger ones or they have to be agile enough to avoid being snapped up.  The smartest little fish in the ocean may be the remora.  It survives by attaching itself to a bigger fish and providing a benefit for them both.  The remora gets the protection of not being eaten while also not taking too much from the host.  Microsoft would do well to setup some kind of similar arrangement with Big Switch.  They could fund future development into NV-GRE compatible options, or they just by the company outright.  Both parties get something out of the deal: Microsoft gets the SDN component they need.  Big Switch gets a backer with so much industry clout that they can no longer be dismissed.