Dell and Cumulus Networks Aim to Take 'BYO Switching' Mainstream

Archived Published: 31 January 2014 ID: G00262246

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Cumulus Networks and Dell have partnered to deliver a new switching architecture that will disrupt the enterprise networking market and lead to increased customer choice and market innovation.

News Analysis


On 28 January 2014, Dell and Cumulus Networks — a maker of Linux-based networking software — announced that specific Dell switches will support Cumulus’ software. Customers that purchase these Dell switches can run either Dell’s Force 10 Operating System or Cumulus software.


This is the first case of merchant silicon-based switches being married to third-party network-switching software for mainstream organizations. In fact, this architectural model has numerous parallels to the server market:

  • Customers can select the hardware and OS independently from each other, which fosters a "BYO switch" or "BYO network OS" approach.

  • Customers have a standard, programmable, extensible OS that supports customization.

  • This model could encourage third-party software vendors to add value by writing software on top of the open OS.

Until now, deployments of this disaggregated switching model have been limited to Web-scale companies buying direct from original design manufacturer (ODM) suppliers, but Dell is showing a willingness to disrupt the enterprise networking market. In order to further disrupt the market and gain share, we expect other switch vendors to offer similar options in 2014.

Although this is a major shift for the mainstream networking market, it is consistent with emerging open software-defined networking (SDN) architectures and ideas identified in Gartner’s “It’s Time to Rethink Your Data Center Software.” The approach increases customer choice in networking software, reduces long-term vendor lock-in, and increases the potential for independent hardware and software innovation. In addition, Gartner estimates this model will yield 30% savings in network switching expenditure versus current approaches. Other benefits include:

  • Dell has a track record of delivering strong pre- and post-sales customer support.

  • In contrast to many incumbent vendors’ code bases, Cumulus’ code base is compact and tailored for the data center, which should lead to increased stability (see “It’s Time to Rethink Your Data Center Software” ).

  • Because both Dell and Cumulus are VMware NSX integration partners, this partnership should enable a cost-effective, optimized underlay for VMware’s NSX.

  • Cumulus software can be managed via Linux tools as well as via automation tools such as Chef and Puppet, which can further reduce costs as network and server management tools converge.

However, this new approach bears several cautions:

  • The technology model is unproven in enterprise networks; thus, the impact on overall network performance and availability is unknown.

  • The approach disaggregates vendor support, and the impact of this disaggregated support on mainstream network teams is unclear.

  • Cumulus has a limited number of customer deployments, so it is not a proven mainstream solution at this point.

  • The solution is available only on two of Dell’s top-of-rack switch models.

Gartner anticipates the greatest initial interest and adoption of this approach will come from very large network operators, including service providers and large financial institutions, because these organizations have the scale to benefit heavily from capital-expenditure savings versus current aggregated approaches. If the approach is successful in these environments, we anticipate mainstream enterprise adoption starting in 1H15.


Senior IT infrastructure leaders:

  • Provide networking staff time to investigate new networking architectures such as this one, particularly when making major purchases.

  • Include Dell/Cumulus on your shortlist for providing the networking underlay for VMware NSX implementations.

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