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Cisco Embraces Disaggregation of the Data Center Network

Lets customers run NX-OS on third-party switches and opens Nexus hardware to third-party operating systems

In an about-face, Cisco is joining the trend of disaggregation in data center networks, saying it will now allow data center customers to run its Nexus operating system (NX-OS) on third-party switches and to use any network operating system on its Nexus switches.

Cisco executives say they are separating NX-OS from Cisco switches to meet the demands of hyper-scalers and large service providers. “The shift is that they are looking at different ways to consume our products. We want to work with them and provide them flexibility and portability,” Thomas Scheibe, Cisco’s VP of product marketing for data center networking, said in an interview with Data Center Knowledge.

In a recent blog post, Cisco said the company supports the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), an Open Compute Project specification, in its Nexus switches. That means customers can run any network OS on any SAI-ready Nexus switch. Microsoft and other web-scale customers currently run Microsoft’s SONiC operating system on Nexus 9200 and 9300 switches, the blog post said.

For the first time, customers can also run NX-OS on third-party hardware, the blog post said. “Now, customers can leverage our industry-leading software innovations and gain the flexibility to adapt them to hardware platforms that best suit their needs,” Roland Acra, Cisco’s senior VP and general manager of data center networking, wrote.

The Nexus data center switch and NX-OS news is part of a larger announcement Cisco made in support of disaggregation – a trend spearheaded by hyper-scale giants like Facebook, because it simplifies management of data centers, allows for faster innovation, reduces costs, and prevents vendor lock-in.

In another blog post, the networking giant announced that service providers can now run Cisco IOS XR on switches and routers powered by merchant silicon, on x86 servers as virtualized software across public clouds, and on specific third-party devices.

Analysts say Cisco’s support for disaggregation is necessary to capture more sales from web-scale companies and large service providers.

Brad Casemore, IDC’s research VP for data center networking, said it’s no coincidence that Cisco made its disaggregation announcements the same week as the Open Networking Summit in late March in Los Angeles, where AT&T announced that it planned to build its 5G network using 60,000 white-box routers.

“In the broader context, Cisco is offering disaggregation because there are segments of its customer base, not just hyper-scale data centers but also service providers, who in growing numbers are demanding it,” Casemore said. “They are small in number but big in buying power. Cisco can’t ignore this and say, ‘No, I’m going to continue to sell you this integrated box like I’ve always sold to you before.’”

Cisco’s Data Center Competition

Cisco’s biggest competitors in the data center space, Arista Networks and Juniper Networks, have already embraced disaggregation, while start-ups such as Cumulus Network and Big Switch Networks have made inroads in the market by offering their own network OSes that run on white boxes.

The implementation of SAI on Nexus switches gives Cisco a chance to take sales away from its adversary Arista, which counts Microsoft among its biggest customers, Casemore said. Cisco is in the midst of a contentious patent infringement lawsuit against Arista.

“The SAI support is something Cisco can leverage in its competition with Arista and other networking vendors,” Casemore said. “It gives Cisco equal footing in terms of switch hardware sales, and anything that hurts Arista’s prospects is attractive to Cisco, because there is a lot of animosity between the two companies.”

One competitor, however, was unimpressed with Cisco’s disaggregation news.  Cumulus Networks CEO Josh Leslie described the move as more marketing than a strategic change and pointed out that Cisco was the latest incumbent player forced to embrace disaggregation. Cisco’s announcement validates Cumulus’s efforts, he said.

“Cisco has been forced to play attention to what is happening in the marketplace and do this very late, very defensive move to placate some of these customers who are increasingly looking at Cisco and asking, ‘What is up with you guys? How come you are selling the same old thing, and the rest of the market is changing around you?’ And the customers are voting with their checkbooks,” Leslie said.

Cumulus, whose flagship product is the Cumulus Linux network operating system, has partnerships with hardware vendors like Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Cumulus says it counts one-third of the Fortune 100 companies among its customers, including the likes of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Verizon.

“We’ve been pursuing this for seven or eight years in the marketplace, and Cisco has been telling our customers, ‘That’s risky. Don’t do that,’ and now all of a sudden, they are doing it, too,” Leslie said.

Cisco’s Nexus and NX-OS Data Center Solutions

Cisco’s Scheibe said both options – the ability to purchase Nexus switches or NX-OS separately – are available to customers today. When customers tell Cisco what they want, Cisco will work with the other vendors to make sure their products can work together, he said.

“There are probably 20 to 30 different white-box vendors. We can’t work with all of them,” Scheibe said. “The engagement model is the customer comes to us and says, ‘We want to buy your Nexus OS and run it on third-party hardware,’ and we work with the hardware they choose to make it work.”

Among hyper-scale customers, Casemore believes Cisco will gain more traction from selling its Nexus switches as a standalone product rather than selling NX-OS to run on third-party hardware.

That’s because many hyper-scale companies have designed their own lean and simple network operating systems. In contrast, NX-OS is probably too feature-rich for them. “They find that proprietary software either does far more than they want or it introduces complexity,” Casemore said.

They would, however, consider Nexus switches if the hardware provides them the performance, scalability, and latency they need, he said.

Some organizations, such as large service providers or large enterprises who are existing Cisco customers, could potentially consider using NX-OS on third-party switches as a way to explore disaggregation, Casemore added.

“They could see if they could save money on capital expenditures by using white-box switches,” he said. “They are familiar with Cisco, and like Cisco software, and require all the features of the OS, and they could try to save money on the hardware.”

Cisco executives are optimistic that they will succeed with their new strategy to provide disaggregated products for data center and service provider customers.

“We are confident in our innovation, and our ability to enable our customers’ business outcomes with more flexible ways of consuming our technology,” Sumeet Arora, Cisco’s senior VP of engineering for the core software group, said. “We believe the steps we have taken help address more needs in the market, so I’m optimistic this is good for us and expands our ability in the market.”

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