Move over, Cisco IOS: Dawn of the industry-standard switch

Bring your own switch, load your own operating system, and save a bundle -- maybe

Last week, I wrote about Cumulus Networks unveiling Cumulus Linux, a Linux distribution that you load onto an original design manufacturer (ODM) switch instead of the age-old standard of buying the switch and its software from the same vendor. I had a long chat with JR Rivers, CEO of Cumulus Networks, about what Cumulus has been up to for the past three years and where he sees things heading in the future. One thing seems certain: The cost of switching is likely to drop significantly. 

Cumulus claims that its solution will allow you to deploy 10G switches for the price of 1G switches from a "traditional" vendor, and that the switching hardware itself is in many cases the exact same hardware. This is because switching vendors buy these same switches (with their branding and requested flourishes), load them with their own proprietary software, and sell them as their own with a significant markup. If you can get essentially the same bare-bones switch hardware and load your own software on it, you can bypass the middle tier and reap the rewards.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cumulus Networks unveils 'Cisco killer' | Get expert networking how-to advice from InfoWorld's Networking Deep Dive PDF special report | Discover the top-rated IT products as rated by the InfoWorld Test Center ]

Of course, this is exactly what happened to the PC and server market, and what ultimately led to the demise of hardware/software powerhouses such as Sun Microsystems. When it became clear that the same results could be obtained with a $3,000 Intel box and Linux, the cost of a $30,000 Sun server was suddenly enormous -- and the inevitable shift began.

There's also a salient point to be made about the pricing of optics. Mainstream vendors have a habit of requiring their own optics in their switches, refusing to use perfectly compatible optics that don't have the manufacturer's signature on them. They buy the exact same optics preloaded with their signatures and then sell them at a huge markup. So what Cumulus Networks has done here may stretch well beyond its own solution -- and may cause a fundamental change in the networking game.

Now, make no mistake: Cumulus Linux truly is a horse of a different color. This isn't a Linux distribution compiled to run on specific CPUs and shrouded in a CLI or GUI; this is straight-up Linux running on a switch. There isn't an IOS-like shell, there's no fancy Web UI, and there's nothing switching- or networking-specific about it, other than Cumulus's translation daemon that essentially maps networking changes made within the Linux kernel and adapts those changes to modify the switching ASIC configuration.

This represents a sea change in how we think about network configuration and management, and it will alienate many IOS gurus who are completely intertwined with Cisco's CLI interface. If they're not familiar with Linux, then they won't be able to do much at all with Cumulus Linux switches. All they'll see is a Bash prompt. They will have all the knowledge of what needs to be done, but no idea how to do it.

On the other hand, server admins who are well versed in Linux and specifically Linux networking will feel right at home, after a fashion. They will have no problem navigating, making modifications, or scripting. But they may find themselves puzzled by certain networking aspects that aren't commonly used in the Linux server world, such as Quagga, the open source routing suite that brings OSPF, BGP, RIP, and other routing protocols to Linux. General Linux server admins are unlikely to have run across the need to deploy Linux-based routers in the past, and they will have to brush up on these complex protocols in order to deploy Cumulus Networks's switches. 

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