Does EMC Need A Network?


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.



More Bang For Your Budget With Whitebox


As whitebox switching starts coming to the forefront of the next buying cycle for enterprises, decision makers are naturally wondering about the advantages of buying cheaper hardware. Is a whitebox switch going to provide more value for me than buying something from an established vendor? Where are the real savings? Is whitebox really for me? One of the answers to this puzzle comes not from the savings in whitebox purchases, but the capability inherent in rapid deployment.

Ten Thousand Spoons

When users are looking at the acquisition cost advantages of buying whitebox switches, they typically don’t see what they would like to see. Ridiculously cheap hardware isn’t the norm. Instead, you see a switch that can be bought for a decent discount. That does take into account that most vendors will give substantial one-time discounts to customers to entice them into more lucrative options like advanced support or professional services.

The purchasing advantage of whitebox doesn’t just come from reduced costs. It comes from additional unit purchases. Purchasing budgets don’t typically spell out that you are allowed to buy ten switches and three firewalls. They more often state that you are allowed to spend a certain dollar amount on devices of a specific type. Savvy shoppers will find deals or discounts to get more for their dollar. The real world of purchasing budgets means that every dollar will be spent, lest the available dollars get reduced next year.

With whitebox, that purchasing power translates into additional units for the same budget amount. If I could buy three switches from Vendor X or five switches from Whitebox Vendor Y, ceteris paribus I would buy the whitebox switches. If the purpose of the purchase was to connect 144 ports, then that means I have two extra switches lying around. Which does seem a bit wasteful.

However, the option of having spares on the shelf becomes very appealing. Networks are supposed to be built in a way to minimize or eliminate downtime because of failure. The network must continue to run if a switch dies. But what happens to the dead switch? In most current cases, the switch must be sent in for warranty replacement. Services contracts with large networking vendors give you the option for 4-hour, overnight, or next business day replacements. These vendors will even cross-ship you the part. But you are still down the dead switch. If the other part of the redundant pair goes down, you are going to be dead in the water.

With an extra whitebox switch on the shelf you can have a ready replacement. Just slip it into place and let your orchestration and provisioning software do the rest. While the replacement is shipping, you still have redundancy. It also saves you from needing to buy a hugely expensive (and wildly profitable) advanced support contract.

All You Need Is A Knife

Suppose for a moment that we do have these switches sitting around on a shelf doing nothing but waiting for the inevitable failure in the network. From a cost perspective, it’s neutral. I spent the same budget either way, so an unutilized switch is costing me nothing. However, what if I could do something with that switch?

The real advantage of whitebox in this scenario comes from the ability to use non-switching OSes on the hardware. Think for a moment about something like a network packet monitor. In the past, we’ve needed to download specialized software and slip a probing device into the network just for the purposes of packet collection. What if that could be done by a switch? What if the same hardware that is forwarding packets through the network could also be used to monitor them as well?

Imagine creating an operating system that runs on top of something like ONIE for the purpose of being a network tap. Now, instead of specialized hardware for that purpose you only need to go and use one of the switches you have lying around on the shelf and repurpose it into a sensor. And when it’s served that purpose, you put it back on the shelf and wait until there is a failure before going back to push it into production as a replacement. With Chef or Puppet, you could even have the switch boot into a sensor identity for a few days and then provision it back to being a data forwarding switch afterwards. No need for messy complicated software images or clever hacks.

Now, extend those ideas beyond sensors. Think about generic hardware that could be repurposed for any function. A switch could boot up as an inline firewall. That firewall could be repurposed into a load balancer for the end of the quarter. It could then become a passive IDS during an attack. All without moving. The only limitation is the imagination of the people writing code for the device. It may not ever top the performance of a device running purely for the purpose of a given function, but the flexibility of having a device that can serve multiple functions without massive reconfiguration would win out in the long run for many applications. Flexibility is more key than overwhelming performance.

Tom’s Take

Whitebox is still finding a purpose in the enterprise. It’s been embraced by webscale, but the value to the enterprise is not found in massive capabilities like that. Instead, the additional purchasing power that can be derived from additional unit purchases for the same dollar amount leads to reduced support contract costs and even new functionality increases from existing hardware lying around that can be made to do so many other things. Who could have imagined that a simple switch could be made to do the job of many other purpose-built devices in the data center? Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?


Vendor Whitebox Switches – Better Together?


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.