Startup Cumulus Networks is today launching its open source [clarification, Cumulus isn’t completely Open Source. The company described it thusly “overall, our distro is Debian. everything that we change to core Linux, we submit back to open source. our main contributions are listed here. We do some stuff to hardware accelerate the Linux kernel and that part requires, among other things, access to some broadcom IP that we cannot open source. So overall, we are open source, except for some smaller parts.] networking operating system and in doing so no doubt raises shivers across the traditional networking vendors. I alluded to what Cumulus is doing in a post a month or so ago where I wrote about the Open Compute Project and it’s attempt to jump start an open source switch ecosystem – combining flexible hardware platforms with open operating systems and, in doing so, bringing the sort of networking efficiencies, flexibility and cost savings that companies like Google have enjoyed for a long time – Google has the size and buying power to design its own networking kit, your average sized enterprise certainly does not.

All that is likely to change as companies like Cumulus come to market – it’s hard to overstate how important this move can be. In a quote I provided for Cumulus Networks’ release I said that:

For too long the networking world has been artificially constrained by proprietary solutions that tie specific hardware to deeply proprietary software. The launch of Cumulus Linux changes all that and could well be the point which heralds a blossoming of innovation in the networking world fueled by open hardware and open software. In the way that Linus Torvalds gave users alternatives to the proprietary hegemony, so too could a best-of-breed ecosystem in networking platforms break open this cozy world.

That might sound kind of gushy, but if you stand back and take a look at how transformational open source software has been in the server and web world – it’s hard to deny that the web was built largely due to the flexibility of the LAMP stack. The last bastion of proprietary solutions with little or no open source counterparts is the networking world. So, what is Cumulus Networks doing and why is it so important?

The company has developed Cumulus Linux, the first Linux operating system for datacenter networking. Don’t be mistaken into thinking that Cumulus Linux has been created off a theoretical base without a long history of experience – founder JR Rivers is the guy who built the long rumored custom networking solution that Google uses to run its own infrastructure. Most of the details about that program are still hidden from public view – but going by what Rivers has been able to disclose about his Google experience, Cumulus Linux is a direct descendent of that program. The product is already in deployment by several service providers and top enterprises – provider such as  DreamHost and Fastly, and some large financial institutions are already using Cumulus Linux in the wild.

The marketing departments of the traditional networking vendors will be quick to point to OpenFlow, a protocol that allows users to manage their hardware, saying that it does all of what Cumulus Linus does. But this initiative, seen in light of the OCP work, goes further than that. As I said after the OCP launch:

In terms of how it will work, the projects aims to create a switch that has within it a “boot loader” that will let software be installed onto the device, across the network. And therein lies the opportunity for another open source software play – currently networking OSes are proprietary to specific vendors – Cisco, Juniper and Arista – imagine a networking OS built on top of Linux for example – it’s a prospect that has these other vendors quivering in their boots.

Cumulus Linux aims to deliver customer benefit across three different measures:

  • Cost Because Cumulus Linux runs on a broad array of “bare-metal” network hardware from vendors like Quanta, Accton and Delta Networks, customers can purchase hardware at cost. At the same time, gear running Cumulus can run right alongside incumbent hardware because Cumulus uses same switching and routing protocols
  • Speed – Cumulus increases network capacity and throughput by enabling all organizations to utilize the latest technologies from the ODM providers of networking gear
  • Agility – Cumulus simplifies orchestration, automation and monitoring of networks. By providing an underlying OS for common Linux-based toolsets, customers can use typical automation tools such as Chef or Puppet and typical monitoring tools like Ganglia and Monit

Arguably OpenFlow might deliver on the agility aspect of this – but there is no denying that an open source networking OS, matched with some commodity switch hardware, can deliver some massive cost savings, putting the best technologies into the hands of most enterprises. It directly challenges the margin based of vendors like Cisco and Juniper – and their response can, over time, only be one of price matching. It’s the typical commercial threat that the server companies have faced in recent years from the dual threats of commodity hardware and open source operating systems.

Cumulus is one of those big ballsy companies that we could be looking back at in a decade thinking of how they changed the very face of an industry. It will be interesting to see the ammunition that the traditional networking vendors bring out to fight this threat.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.


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