Networking Came to a Fork in the Road

Mike Fratto
Mike Fratto

Summary Bullets:

  • Dell is leading the competitive market in disaggregated switching with four switches and three (soon to be four) OSs supported.
  • Any networking vendor could equal Dell’s early lead in a few months, but catching up with Dell’s integration strategies will take longer.

While Cisco and VMware are squabbling over ACI and NSX and other networking vendors are trying to gain mind and market share with enterprise IT, Dell has taken a turn away from all of its competitors by committing its future data center switch lines to its ‘open networking’ (ON) strategy that may very well be a significant differentiator in the future.

So far, HP and Juniper each have a single ToR switch that qualifies as a branded white box, but Dell has four: three ToR leafs (the S3048-ON, S4810-ON, and S4048-ON) and one spine (the S6000-ON) which can also be a high density leaf. The Z9100-ON, due in Q2/Q3 2015, has also been announced. More importantly, Dell’s new data center switches will support open networking.

Dell already supports third-party OSs from technology partners Big Switch and Cumulus Networks as an alternative to Dell’s own OS9, and it is in the process of adding OcNOS from newly announced partner IP Infusion. Dell is also providing first line support for its customers using its ON product line and support OSs. To hear the company’s technology partners tell it, Dell is great to work with on the integration, support, and go-to-market.

It’s a great strategy. Dell can quickly shift direction at any point in the future at a relatively lost cost while providing a great deal of flexibility for its customers. Open networking lets Dell simplify its hardware product line with fewer platforms that are highly configurable; allows customers to choose a software that best fits their needs; allows customers to change the software when their needs change; and does so at a lower cost than most of its competitors. Dell currently positions the ON switch line for the cloud-scale data center, but there’s also no reason why Dell couldn’t bring the open networking strategy to the campus LAN.

While Dell is first out of the gate with such a strategy, will open networking give the company any long-term advantage?

Since Dell’s open networking relies on merchant silicon, software partners for the operating system, and a well-defined set of criteria from the OCP for features and integration, any vendor could relatively quickly (measured in months, not years) take away Dells advantage with their own branded white box, integrated software, and support. By taking a commodity approach to networking, Dell has set the stage for competitors to take it on. Outside of chest thumping, being first has little intrinsic value.

Ever since Dell bought Force10 in 2011, the company has been talking about simplifying networking like it did in storage with EquaLogic. That is its agenda by integrating its other software products and those from partners into a cohesive offering which ultimately automates common tasks while still allowing customers to make more advanced changes if needed. It has been a long road, but the pieces are falling into place and that will be harder for competitors to replicate.

What do you think?

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