Lead Image © Pei Ling Hoo, 123RF.com

Lead Image © Pei Ling Hoo, 123RF.com

OS10 and Dell's open networking offensive

Freedom, as in OS10

Article from ADMIN 35/2016
Dell's OS10 is a Linux-based operating system for network hardware that is designed to free network admins from the stranglehold of established manufacturers. We look at what it is, how the system works, and what it can do for you.

Dell caused a sensation at the beginning of 2016 when the manufacturer, known more for its server and desktop systems, presented an operating system for network switches named OS10 [1] (Operating System 10). Although switches by Dell formerly have run on an operating system simply dubbed OS, OS10 ups the game in many ways, one of them being that – unlike its predecessor – OS10 is based on Linux. Also, Dell provides the operating system expressly with the promise of decoupling: OS10 works not only on devices by Dell, but also on generic network hardware.

In contrast to proprietary switch operating systems, OS10 also offers open APIs, turning switches into normal Linux servers that can be managed in large environments like their server counterparts. I take a closer look at what Dell promises with OS10, how the operating system differs from classical switch firmware, and the market opportunities that OS10 could reveal.

Market Analysis

A look at the market for network infrastructure helps you understand why an open switch operating system such as OS10 is attracting so much attention. The market is not renowned for being flexible and fast moving: For decades, only a few corporations have divided it up, led by Juniper and Cisco.

In most cases the decision in favor of network hardware by one of these manufacturers is equivalent to a long partnership. If you have equipped your data center throughout with hardware by one producer, you will find it difficult to break away for several reasons. Although virtually all common network protocols and technologies have standards, it is nevertheless not easy to combine network hardware from two different vendors in everyday life. If you have ever tried to use jumbo frames between switches by different manufacturers, you will be familiar with the problem.

Additionally, a network administrator cannot manage devices automatically from other suppliers without training to match. Just because you can handle Cisco switches does not mean you can operate Juniper hardware. Linux-only admins are usually already ruled out of the network hardware game for the same reasons. Switches thus integrate poorly with modern DevOps concepts: Companies typically maintain configurations well removed from the rest of the installation.

The quasi-monopoly of the established producers is a problem in many ways. In addition to the lack of pressure to develop new features, the lock-in issue in particular prevents competition because it is difficult for new companies to gain a foothold with their own network hardware and reach a critical mass. Mellanox is a good example: In the InfiniBand market, the Israeli company is the undisputed market leader; however, the Ethernet division of the company, which offers some interesting products, is virtually unknown to many networkers.

Switches with proprietary software also prevent the development of additional features, because third parties cannot simply dock their products onto existing devices that lack open standards and interfaces. Juniper and others charge heavily for collaboration.

In recent years, signs have pointed to the slow breakdown of the monopoly of established manufacturers. Cloud computing, and especially software-defined networking (SDN), are the major motivators. Today, much of the functionality previously implemented primarily in the switch (i.e., in the physical network hardware) is now implemented in the software.

Breaking the Monopoly

The software does not need to run on the network devices of the cloud setup. In OpenStack clouds, switches are typically degraded to dumb iron and only receive and deliver packets between individual ports. This is not by design, by the way, because modern switches are actually small servers with many network connections. However, for it to work, the firmware of the switch must be modular and open, which is where the theory often fails from practical limitations: Proprietary operating systems are precisely not open systems. Modifications to the firmware of the device can be made only to the extent permitted by the manufacturer.

Cumulus [2] shows another way: The operating system for switches can be installed on white-label hardware by various vendors; it offers open APIs as well as a genuine Linux kernel and a distribution based on Debian. The idea of the network switch as a simple server becomes a reality. Mellanox therefore relies on cooperation with Cumulus for its Ethernet products, and various Mellanox devices can be ordered with Cumulus installed. Because scalable setups are steadily gaining in importance, the open network infrastructure market has huge potential.

OS10 as a Competitor

The circle now closes with OS10: Dell is taking the same line and looking to establish an operating system for switches already on the market that can also be used on hardware by other vendors and provides open interfaces. Ultimately, OS10 is Dell's manifest claim to cornering a sizeable share of the large cloud network market.

OS10 is similar to Cumulus in many ways: The core system is based on Linux and follows the switch abstraction interface (SAI) rules, a standard that Dell, Mellanox, Facebook, Intel, and Broadcom jointly developed within the framework of the Open Compute Project.

In the past few months, Dell has been beating the marketing drum for OS10. Bearing in mind the many similarities with Cumulus, the questions are: What can OS10 actually do? What can it do better than Cumulus? Where is the potential for improvement?

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