Analysis: Dell’s open embrace of SDN

Dell's recent announcement shows it is betting big on software-defined networking, but will it win out?

Software defined networking (SDN) has been hailed as the future of the networking industry, and it is easy to see why. Moving the intelligence from expensive hardware to centralised software means reduced costs, improved management, more agility, speedier deployments and flexibility.

While it has been described as a threat to big traditional networking companies such as Cisco and Juniper Networks, who have huge legacy infrastructure to protect, SDN is providing an opportunity for many start-ups, including Plexxi, Big Switch Networks and PLUMgrid.

Other companies, neither start-ups, nor traditional networking vendors, are seizing on SDN as an opportunity. Dell is one of those companies, and its recent announcement shows it is betting big on software-defined networking.

The now-private technology giant has announced its new open-networking initiative involving a decoupling of networking hardware and software. It will now sell bare-metal switches (the S6000 and S4810, at the moment) and let customers choose which network operating system they run. At first that will be a choice between Dell’s proprietary OS and a Linux-based OS offered by Cumulus Networks, but the choice should expand as Dell signs more reseller agreements.

Dell says the benefits of this will be more choice for customers, and newer, smaller form factor core devices that can help reduce capital costs by anywhere between 30% and 70%. Operational expenses can also be reduced by at least 30% compared to chassis-based switches, Dell said in its release.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Dominique Vanhamme, Dell’s EMEA head of networking, said this announcement was the result of many years of high investment and a reflection of where the networking industry is heading.

"SDN is really about disconnecting the hardware layer from the software,” he said. “The network of the future will be one with the control back in the hands of the CIOs or decision makers. Having proprietary lock-in is not the way we’ve been developing our products and direction. We’ve been using SDN as a framework that allows our customers to have a multi-year view in front of them, like a beacon.”

It’s a move that could potentially have a huge impact on the networking world, according to Gartner distinguished analyst Joe Skorupa. He told Computer Weekly the announcement “puts Dell in a position of being potentially a significantly disruptive force. It’s the first time an established vendor has been willing to go to market and say it doesn’t have the only answer in terms of networking software.”

The old vision of one size fits all does not necessarily apply in today’s networking world, Skorupa said, and by unbundling the hardware and software, lowering its hardware prices and providing sales, service and support for third-party software products, Dell could provide solutions for as much as a third less than similar offerings from a Cisco, for example.

The announcement certainly puts Dell in an interesting position against traditional network vendors such as Cisco and Juniper. Skorupa claims Dell’s history across IT should help it success in the networking space.

Having a clear, simple strategy on SDN is paying off for us and it’s something our competitors will have to digest

Dominique Vanhamme, head of networking EMEA, Dell

“They should be worried by Dell’s move, as it’s been growing its networking business quite rapidly since the Force10 acquisition,” he said. “For them to win they don’t necessarily have to win the accounts, they can win by re-setting people’s expectation of what datacentre networking hardware and software should cost.

“Because of its PC and server business, Dell knows how to run on very thin margins; 25% margins are great in the server business, but it’s a disaster for an established networking vendor. Dell, and indeed HP, know those margins. Cisco and Juniper do not.”

Dell’s Vanhamme, unsurprisingly, agrees with Skorupa’s point of view. “These very large players are facing a bit of a conundrum; they have multiple technologies and products and they were forced to rush their products because they were going in a different direction to the industry.”

“Having a clear, simple strategy on SDN is paying off for us and it’s something our competitors will have to digest. You cannot have three or four SDN announcements in one year, with each one competing with the last. It just creates more chaos for their customers and does not show confidence that they know where they’re going.”

Cisco, in response to the SDN phenomenon, recently announced its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). This is a hardware and software combination that centralises the management, monitoring and programming. Cisco says this will reduce deployment times and ownership costs.

Dell’s open networking announcement, however, isn’t just the company making a play in the networking space. It has its sights set slightly higher than that.

“We want to be part of the redesign of not just the datacentre but all enterprise infrastructure,” Vanhamme said. “So with this approach we believe we can be very open but also bring key functionality closer to the network or storage and so on.

“We call it disaggregating all the proprietary silos: the vendor lock-in, specific operating systems, premium prices, lack of support for certain apps such as HANA, Hadoop, VDI etc. That all seems to be very vendor specific. However with an open-source approach we have a Linux-based kernel with open APIs on the workloads and applications and, below that, switches that use merchant silicon and are very efficient.”

For now, Dell is aiming its open-networking initiative at financial institutions, cloud-computing providers and basically anyone with a large scale datacentre, where, Vanhamme says, open approach can dramatically bring hardware, software and operations costs down.

Gartner’s Skorupa adds: “It allows them to go into some of the big datacentre providers, who are doing a lot of automation of conventional networks. Probably not to a Google or Amazon, who have their own software and buy white boxes, but companies the next size down are a target.”

“Dell will be able to offer close to white box price with the same software as well as service and support and integration. That’s not a bad thing to be able to do at all.”

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