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Disaggregated Data Center Networks are Now a Reality. What’s Next?

It may be the most disruptive trend in the brief history of data center networking. But does disaggregation move on to the enterprise, or will telcos and hyperscalers be enough?

You might never have thought about it this way, but an ordinary PC is already disaggregated. Its operating system is not embedded or otherwise etched into its firmware. Conversely, in a disaggregated network, the switches and routers are more like servers, with ordinary “merchant hardware” on the substrate and a replaceable, often open-source network operating system (NOS) as its software, most likely using Linux as its core.

On the surface, disaggregation seems like a sensible architectural trend for the network. “Decoupling” the software, as a developer would put it, enables its vendor (or, in the open-source case, its contributors) to adapt and improve it more frequently — far more often than its proprietary, EEPROM-based counterparts would get re-flashed.

Cumulus Networks coined the phrase “network disaggregation” in 2013 — an eon ago. Its entry into the market was the inflection point in the brewing of a perfect storm — effectively, an avalanche tipped off by a volcano. But is the enterprise data center network changing as a result, or is the impact of disaggregation limited to those organizations already possessing the skill to make sense of it?

Whose Network Is it Anyway?

Here’s the basic proposition:  If the design of a network is mainly implemented in software, and hardware is mainly a facilitator for this software, then enterprises should become capable of organically growing networks that are more adaptive to their own workloads and scalable along with their own business needs. Disaggregation allows for the insertion of open-source development into the discussion of network engineering, making the design of enterprise networks a topic of general interest — outside of the locked doors of vendors like Cisco, Arista, and Aruba — for the very first time.

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