SDN Startup Pushes Switch To Open Hardware

As datacenter operators push for more choices to maximize performance and efficiency, the limited options for network operating systems against preferred hardware platforms are a new target for startups hoping to upend the established network world.

While not alone in this effort, Pica8 has been gathering steam, Calvin Chai, told The Next Platform their reach will continue to grow as more users, frustrated with the limitations of using a tightly integrated hardware and software stack from networking vendors like Cisco, Arista, and Juniper, push to pick and choose what network functionality they require.

“There are advantages when the hardware and software are decoupled in terms of choice. Users can now look at other hardware specs since they are no longer bound to the traditional proprietary model of networking software, where everything has to be rooted in a particular operating system model and limited hardware model. Now, if you want a standard Layer 2, which is our base license, that is a starting point, but it’s possible to just add a Layer 3 license if that’s needed, and if the goal is to build out software defined networking applications, there is a license for that that includes support for protocols such as OpenFlow 1.4.”

Users have been buying equipment in the same way for decades and they do get in their comfort zone. But still, there are a lot of them that really dislike being locked in with a specific vendor, says Chai. “If one buys a switch from Cisco but finds a new hardware line card or feature is needed on that switch, it means waiting on them to make that available. And worse, that means ripping out hardware and making big changes to update, which is not something they like. With this, it’s more flexible and disaggregated—you can pick and choose and load the software and hardware separately.”

While many more options might ride with the flexible model Pica8 and others in a similar sphere, including Cumulus and Pluribus, offer, the fact is, when it comes to critical networking gear, the comfort zone factor goes well beyond simply “being used to” another vendor’s setup. What happens if Pica8 is acquired, goes belly-up, or merges with another’s company’s feature set?

These are the tough (and obvious) questions from customers, but according to Chai, the biggest hurdle they face when talking to customers now is assuring them there is somewhere to go for everything from procurement to troubleshooting. Over the years, Cisco, Juniper, and Arista customers had someone on speed dial to troubleshoot problems, but with the software and hardware decoupled, it means a shift to the hardware maker for the support via a partnership with Pica8. For instance, in the case of Penguin Computing, which specializes in open source and HPC hardware and software (and who recently entered the switch world with its Artica platform), customers would be directed that way for assistance.

Penguin-4804ip-network-switch-10It is this very partnership angle that forms the backbone of Pica8’s strategy. Having trusted integrators as allies, especially those who specialize in open hardware like Penguin Computing (a frontrunner in the Open Compute Project and one of the first early Linux server companies) is the only way Pica8 can survive. Their current list of supported hardware platforms includes Quanta Cloud Technology, and a small handful of other smaller companies, but Chai says that they are working hard on expanding that list since it defines their strategy.

Penguin Computing is adding Pica8’s operating system into the list of options for users interested in their Arctica top of rack switches to add flexibility for those who might want Layer 2/Layer 3 protocols as well as SDN protocols. This is based on a flat rate licensing model for each of the options in a menu-based approach where users pick what suits their needs.

The Gigabit Ethernet Arctica switches are based on the Broadcom Triumph chipset with integrated OpenFlow 1.4 on the PicaOS side. The Arctica 4804i with PicaOS provides what Penguin calls the top choice for those looking to onboard an open switch into an existing network with CLI for operations, a standard Linux environment and the ability to tap into OpenFlow via the ONOS, OpenDaylight, and RYU controllers.

“As one of the largest private suppliers of enterprise and high-performance computing solutions in North America, we know the direction of the data center market,” said Tom Coull, CEO, Penguin Computing. “By combining Layer 2 / Layer 3 routing and switching support with OpenFlow 1.4 support for SDN under a familiar command-line interface, PicOS makes it convenient for data center operators to leverage bright box economics while gaining the flexibility that comes from network disaggregation.”

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