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Dell unwraps SONiC 4.0, sharpens network OS for retail edge environments

Adds multi-site DCI to help admins weave a single fabric

Sponsored Feature Dell has pushed the open-source network operating system SONiC beyond the data center and out to the edge for the first time.

Enterprise SONiC Distribution by Dell Technologies 4.0 is specifically targeted at retail and branch environments and also enables the supplier's Data Center Interconnect multi-site platform to manage multiple installations as a single network. Version 4.0 includes features such as power-over-Ethernet and 802.1x, and VXLAN support. Dell has also launched a Validated Design for Retail Edge, spanning infrastructure and applications, which will be available in June.

SONiC was originally developed by Microsoft for use in hyperscale data centers and was donated to the Open Compute Project in 2016. It has since been adopted by tier-two cloud operators, comms service providers, and increasingly by large enterprises, with Dell taking the lead on tuning it for the latter.

Dell's director of product management and strategy for emerging networking technologies, Saurabh Kapoor, said the community around Sonic was expanding very quickly: "When you have multiple forces coming together to drive the momentum, as opposed to a single vendor, the feature velocity is significant."

Kapoor said Dell's aim with Enterprise SONiC 4.0 was to provide customers with a single NOS that stretches from their core data center right to the edge so that they have a unified fabric. This would allow them to use the same monitoring or automation tools "to manage both environments seamlessly."

This could encompass retail systems, as well as kiosks, and security cameras, he explained. It could also include financial services and hospital environments, and niche uses within campus networks, all of which can constitute or necessitate mini data centers which need to be managed from, and which require interconnectivity with, the core data center.

Kapoor said a number of factors inspired Dell to take the lead in extending SONiC to the edge. Dell already had an extensive background in retail and branch use cases, as well as with large enterprises, and "they have been working very closely with us in order to have Sonic adopted in the data centers, but they also see a lot of value of Sonic going into the edge."

In addition, he said: "There's so much happening on the edge, the emerging trends around AI/ML, big data, the data boom with IoT happening on the edge. Having an open-source technology like SONiC enabling those use cases gives a lot of flexibility and the ability to innovate in that space."

This is further underpinned by SONiC's container-based architecture, he said. The ability to run a third party, proprietary or open source application as a container, "really gives customers the flexibility to absorb the capabilities of the NOS and extend it to the application layer."

Meanwhile, the DCI multi-site capability will help enterprise customers running multiple data centers, Kapoor explained, by allowing network ops to work across a single fabric, again, using the same tooling.

This will make it easier for them to use one or more redundant data centers to enable active standby, for example. "So if you need an update or you need downtime in fabric one or data center one, you can achieve that and then ensure resiliency in that environment."

While the initial 4.0 release focuses on branch and DCI, further 4.x releases will bring guest and voice VLAN capabilities, as well as additional features geared towards far and near edge use cases. "That's the North Star for us," said Kapoor. "This is just one of the stepping stones."

So far, Dell has contributed over a million lines of code and more than five thousand defect fixes to SONiC, he said, and taken the lead in improving the project's documentation. "We've done a lot of contributions around features like flow management, VRF, zero touch provisioning, NTP, and PIM-SSM. We contributed platform APIs, streaming telemetry." It has also developed a CLI framework tool for switch configuration.

Kapoor said while an open-source platform gave customers unlimited flexibility to build their ideal software stack and tooling, there are many customers who simply want an enterprise ready, hardened, supported and backed solution. Dell Technologies can back the entire stack, he said, and offers deployment services and hands-on labs.

In addition, customers have a 1-800 Dell number to call "for hardware software, ecosystem partner technology support." This is a key differentiator he said, because in the enterprise, "you cannot have network downtime. You need that enterprise support."

Sponsored by Dell.

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