The future isn’t set in stone, and nor is the network

There’s a reason why Dell took open source networking mainstream

Sponsored Feature Very few organizations are averse to being more flexible and dynamic. It's the ultimate goal for the digital transformation journey upon which most companies eventually embark. However, there's one area of IT that sometimes remains stubbornly resistant to innovation – the network.

Traditionally there was one overriding aim of the network and the team supporting it: to maintain service, no matter what. That meant prioritizing availability, stability and resiliency. But it also led to a reluctance to experiment at best, and at worst a dogged resistance to the faintest suggestion of change.

This went hand in hand with a tendency towards monolithic networking stacks. As Saurabh Kapoor, explains, the default was "One networking vendor that would provide the operating system, the hardware platform, the API's."

That situation certainly didn't lend itself to a best of breed approach when it came to tooling, while simultaneously limiting the ability of organizations to develop their own: "If a user wanted a new feature, they had to either wait for the vendor to deliver it or they were forced to replace the entire infrastructure."

A closed, proprietary approach might well have delivered stability, but it was increasingly out of step with the evolution of software development. Nor did it fit well with deployments focused on supporting agility and continuous delivery and the separation of control planes and underlying hardware for other infrastructure elements such as compute and storage.

For many it became clear that disaggregating the network operating system (NOS) from the underlying hardware could give vendors and users far more freedom, both in terms of how they build their network, but more importantly, in how they use it to enable innovation across the organization.

Dell made its own steps in this direction in 2014, explains Kapoor, with the launch of its Open Networking platform. "We disaggregated the networking stack by introducing this concept where the customers had a choice of running either the Dell Networking operating system or a validated third-party NOS on a Dell switch."

This was just the first step towards a truly disaggregated network. As Kapoor explains, "A standard operating system that was analogous to Linux was still needed for the industry to collaborate and build upon."

This came in the shape of SONiC, which was originally developed by Microsoft for use in its own hyperscale data centers. Microsoft opted to open up the platform and donated it to the Open Computer Project in 2016.

SONiC goes boom

Because SONiC is built around containers and microservices, each component and individual feature, whether it's DHCP or BGP for example, are packaged into individual containers, Kapoor explains. The nature of this architecture makes it easier for Dell and other providers to add features and tools, and tailor the entire stack for specific applications or even entire sectors.

Beyond the hyper scalars – Tencent is reportedly a user, alongside Microsoft - the target customer is enterprises running in excess of 200 network switches. By definition, these are organizations that, as Kapoor puts it, "can really capitalize on … open-source networking, from the utility perspective".Dell offers its OS 10 platform for small and medium sized customers who need a more tightly defined stack, for example.

But while the open nature and containerized architecture of Sonic means enterprises have much broader opportunities to tailor the OS to their unique use cases (as hyper scalars have done for years) they can still draw on support from Dell, explains Kapoor. "It's critically important to have that enterprise backing."

Of course, ask anyone if they'd like more freedom and control, and they'll usually say "yes". But when it comes to the network, what do they actually want to do with that freedom?

"The modern data center is no longer centered around protocol stacks", says Kapoor. "It's about agility, flexibility. Customers want to have network automation, they want to have simplicity in their environment, they want to make their operations more agile, more effective."

But he continues, "They also [want to] integrate networking into the overall infrastructure which can bring them operational savings"

For many this means a switch to application centric networks which can help to ensure the underlying infrastructure is responsive to the requirements of developers looking to support multi cloud operations in line with business requirements.

It also entails giving them access to the tools and applications they really want to use, not those mandated by their hardware supplier, whether they like them or not.

As Kapoor explains, "Customers are able to establish the same environment that they were establishing with other vendors, with open source tools. You have Ansible, which is one of the most common network automation tools now, you have all these open-source technologies, like Telegraf and Prometheus."

Other targets include Batfish: "We're also looking at other tools like Calico for Kubernetes, creating that rich suite of open-source technologies."

For example, says Kapoor, admins can run the open-source monitoring tool Telegraf as a container on SONiC, and access the northbound comms, irrespective of the underlying platform.

This can then be plugged into a Grafana dashboard for visualization, for example. Likewise Dell can provide support for enterprise tooling which integrates into ticketing tools like ServiceNow. All of these would be instantly recognizable to anyone coming from a DevOps background.

No more black box, right on time

The upshot is the network is no longer a black box to customers, and they are able to make more informed decisions about scaling capacity, or anticipate problems before they become critical. "It has moved from reactive analysis to predictive analytics".

Customers also benefit from more freedom around the underlying hardware they deploy in their data centers. The urge to unshackle themselves from monolithic legacy providers and adopt a more software-led approach has been given further impetus by the current supply problems affecting so many physical components.

"They cannot go about replacing the infrastructure because of these challenges, so they want a common denominator they can settle on, one that allows them to have one software layer that spreads across the vendor, and then establish the same set of applications, controllers, monitoring tools, etc., across different vendor platforms."

That underlying infrastructure can, of course, include Dell's hardware as well as OEM and white box platform providers. Networking stalwarts Cisco and Juniper are part of the Sonic community too. "Even the silicon providers - Broadcom, Intel, Marvel - all of them are into the community now." And it's intuitive that customers benefit when hardware providers know that they cannot rely on simple inertia or customer lock-in.

It's also worth remembering that this common denominator approach will have a direct impact on the productivity of an organization's network specialists and indeed network investment overall. In the old world, organizations might opt for a single vendor in the interests of simplicity, but have to compromise on tooling and flexibility.

If they did choose to have a mix of infrastructure, "then you will have different interfaces for different network fabrics, you need to train your staff or for those technologies, and then monitor, you know, the environments in silos."

All these factors mean Dell is able to tailor its implementation of SONiC for different use cases. The lineup currently includes a "lightweight software bundle" tailored for cloud use cases for tier two and SaaS providers, and an enterprise bundle. The company recently launched Enterprise SONiC by Dell Technologies 4.0 which is tailored for edge and branch use cases. It also offers Data Center Interconnect multi-site, allowing organizations to manage multiple data centers as a single network.

Future targets include the near edge, and far edge installations, as more compute is deployed farther away from traditional data centers, for example to allow IoT infrastructure to carry out more analytics.

One of the near-term targets for Dell is a bundle tailored towards the needs of telcos, Kapoor says, for example the computing structure needed at the bottom of a cellphone tower.

More broadly, Kapoor explains, "The 5G use cases are enormous, with autonomous vehicles and IoT devices utilizing the 5G infrastructure. We will see a different edge environment, I think, in the next two to three years."

Of course, these are just the futures we can envisage right now. Experience has taught us that even more disruptive use cases with radical implications for infrastructure can erupt with little warning.

So, the key question remains. If the future changes, is your network infrastructure agile enough to change with it?

Sponsored by Dell.

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