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1/28/2014
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Dell, Cumulus Networks Partner on Bare-Metal Switches

Dell will offer the Cumulus Linux switch OS on two of its ToR switches starting this year.

Dell and Cumulus Networks today announced a partnership to resell the Cumulus Linux network OS. Dell is making two of its switches available to run the third-party OS: the S6000 and the S4810 top-of-rack switches.

Traditional switch vendors argue that tight integration of proprietary software and hardware is necessary for optimal performance and reliability. Vendors can charge a premium for that integration. Some vendors also use custom ASICs to boost performance and add features, which also adds to the cost.

Bare-metal or white box switches are touted as a lower-cost alternative. They are built on the same merchant silicon found in many of the traditional switch brands. These switches have found a home in Web-scale companies that need large quantities of fast, low-cost network equipment gear.

Dell hopes its Cumulus partnership will open up such markets. “It allows Dell to expand beyond where we’re selling in the general enterprise,” says Arpit Joshipura, VP and Product Management, Dell Networking. “It will let us expand into the Web space and large financial services.”

Dell did not release pricing for the S6000 and S4810 switches running Cumulus Linux, but Joshipura says that “depending on volume and support/services needs, customers could see as much as a 20% pricing differential.”

The company will have to discount heavily if it wants to compete on price against white box manufacturers such as Accton or Quanta, says Mike Fratto, principal analyst at Current Analysis, via an e-mail interview.

“The Web-scale companies buying low-cost switches have the talent and the drive to self-support and make the most of the integration potential with a Linux-based OS like Cumulus OS, so it really depends on whether Dell can be price competitive,” he writes.

Joshipura acknowledges that the bare-metal/white box market is sensitive to price. However, he also says “Dell is already there in terms of servers and other IT infrastructure. People are looking for a global footprint, support, services, and a single throat to choke.” He says customers won’t get that with a  classic white box manufacturer.

JR Rivers, co-founder and CEO of Cumulus Networks, notes that price isn’t the only benefit of a bare-metal model. “If I’m Cisco and I win a rack or a pod, the probability of being displaced is almost zero. That’s a customer pain point.”

By decoupling software and hardware, Rivers says customers have more flexibility. “If you pick a software supplier that doesn’t perform, you can change out the software without having to re-rack every switch in the data center. The networking industry is finally catching up to the server world.”

The partnership gives the Cumulus the backing of a brand-name vendor, which is significant for a startup. “For us it’s really exciting,” says Rivers. “Dell is an IT provider that’s on everybody’s approved vendor list, so it makes it more straightforward for customers to deploy this into production.”

To that end, Dell says it will offer a full support package for customers that buy the switches running Cumulus Linux OS through Dell. That includes professional services and pre- and post-sales support.

Having Dell’s support muscle is a clear win for Cumulus, because it answers potential customers’ concerns about the level and quality of support that a startup could provide. As Greg Ferro noted in a blog post about Cumulus in August 2013, that concern is legitimate. He wrote “Cumulus is a very small company at this point, with a commensurately small (and new) support organization. These factors may represent a risk for companies.”

Quality support is also essential if Dell wants to make an impact on the enterprise market, writes Current Analysis’s Fratto. “Much the same way RedHat convinced enterprises they would get the same level of support for RedHat Linux as other competing server OS vendors, Dell can offer the same reassurances with the added benefit of a track record they can point to.”

However, Fratto also notes that Dell is selling switches with the Cumulus OS direct rather than via the channel, which might slow the initial reception. “Most enterprises buy through the channel, so until Dell makes them available through the channel, it’s not likely to have an immediate impact.”

Dell says the two ToR switches with Cumulus Linux will be available in the first quarter of its fiscal year in 2014.

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