Micas Takes On Arista And The Whiteboxes In Datacenter Switching

The rise of the merchant silicon suppliers for datacenter networking and routing, which was spearheaded by Broadcom with chips and Arista Networks with switches, was not a foregone conclusion. It took decades for Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks to get complacent, leaving open the opportunity for cheaper and more capable ASICs as well as disaggregated network operating systems to start chipping away at these companies and carve out a respectable piece of the market.

Here in 2023, Cisco and Juniper are both on the rebound after a decade and a half of very intense competition and Arista Networks has become the go-to supplier for datacenter switches for hyperscalers Microsoft and Meta Platforms and probably more than a handful of the two dozen very large datacenter operators on Earth. And watching all of this, the last thing that you might be thinking that the market needs is another switch maker trying to take on Arista and whitebox switch makers like the Edgecore Networks division of Taiwanese equipment manufacturer Accton Technology.

But shooting the gap between Cisco, Juniper and Arista on one side and the whitebox switch makers on the other side is precisely what Micas Networks, which has re-emerged from stealth mode, aims to do. And Micas also wants to bring its own innovation to bear in hardware as well as ride the wave of adoption for the open source SONiC network operating system to break into the hyperscalers and cloud builders that dominate datacenter infrastructure spending these days.

Micas is not precisely a new company, but it is getting a fresh start after being taken over by Cedar Investments, a private equity firm based in Singapore that recently bought the assets of a networking startup called Ragile Networks. Ragile itself was founded in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was ripping through the world and creating a mess of IT component and systems supply chains, and was focused on hardware innovations such as cold plate cooling for switch components as well as near-package optics (NPO) and co-packaged optics (CPO) in switch designs.

The Ragile NPO switch designs with cold plate cooling debuted in November 2021 and the CPO design based on the 51.2 Tb/sec “Tomahawk 5” StrataXGS ASIC was demonstrated in March 2022. A more complete Ragile product line was launched at the Open Compute Project’s Global Summit last year, and interestingly the company announced 2U switch based on Broadcom’s 25.6 Tb/sec “Tomahawk 4” StrataXGS ASIC that was made for Chinese hyperscaler Tencent and that used CPO techniques to cut the power consumption of the optics for the network by 50 percent. But clearly, Ragile needed more backing to ramp up sales. (Not everyone can have serial entrepreneur and multi-billionaire Andy Bechtolsheim, who among many other things got rich by selling an Ethernet switch business to Cisco when it was only a routing company, as it co-founder and investor.)

At this year’s OCP Global Summit, which is taking place this week, there is a new owner that is funding the revitalized Micas Networks and a new management team that is adding expertise in SONiC as well as support for that network operating system on an expanded switch product line that is based on a wider array of switch ASICs from Broadcom. Now, Micas has both a hardware and software stack and can make a play in the datacenter much as Arista Networks did with its eponymous switches and its Linux-derived Extensible Operating System (EOS) back in 2011 when it dropped out of stealth. SONiC, too, is based on Linux, but unlike EOS, it is open source and it includes the Switch Abstraction Layer that acts as a shim between that operating system and the underlying software development kits and switch ASIC hardware that various switch makers create and control, thus providing a higher-level compatibility layer that enables the portability of SONiC across many different ASICs.

Micas is led by chief executive officer Patrick Tian, who was formerly head of sales at Ragile and before that was in charge of Chinese accounts at telecom gear maker Ericsson for more nearly a decade.

Jason Pan has been brought in to Micas as vice president of sales and business development, and has a very long history in that role in a long line of hardware and software makers for more than two decades. Pan was a business development manager at Compaq and a strategic alliance manager at Dell during the Dot Com boom and then did a longer stint at Sun Microsystems as a channel marketing manager. He went to Rackable Systems after that, which merged with Silicon Graphics, did a stint with high-end networking maker Mellanox and then went to Taiwanese ODM Quanta Cloud Technology to handle the channel and marketing efforts. Pan then did business development for storage makers Promise Technology and Kioxia (the Toshiba flash business) followed by a business development gig at ODM Tyan Computer. Suffice it to say, Pan knows his way around the OEMs and the ODMs.

Max Simmons, who had senior management positions at Intel’s flash and Optane 3D XPoint memory businesses and who was chief marketing officer at Ragile, has the CMO job at Micas.

For the most part, it looks like Micas is going to let the technology and the lower cost pricing it offers compared to Arista, Cisco, and Juniper do the talking, and it is going to also focus on the fact that it has an open network platform and work to have better time to market compared to the incumbents thanks to a very tight partnership with Broadcom.

Competing against Cisco and Juniper used to be easy, and is less so today, and competing against Arista seems very tough indeed. But Micas things there is room for another player at the high end of Ethernet networking in the datacenter, and the hyperscalers and cloud builders no doubt would like a second source for gear.

“This is the same conversation that you and I had back in 2013, when you asked me why Quanta,” Pan tells The Next Platform with a laugh. “Back then, we had Dell, and Hewlett Packard, and some Sun Microsystems and a slew of other whitebox server vendors just starting to move in. Today, we see the tier one switch companies with nine month to twelve month lead times, and we want to cut that and also give customers the best total cost of ownership. Look at the earnings reports from all of our competitors, with 80 percent to 90 percent gross margins, and we are looking at doing it for single-digit gross margins. This is a huge delta.”

No kidding. This is how Linux killed Unix, and how the ODMs killed off the OEMs at the hyperscalers and cloud builders. But what Micas wants to offer is about more than price. Although that lower price is driven in part by having its own factory and now relying on contract manufacturers who have to make their own margins.

To lower that switch price and to better control its supply chain, Micas has opened a factory in Penang, Malaysia that has the capacity to make 90,000 switches in 2024 and then quadruple that in 2025. This is a lot of switches. A datacenter has somewhere around 20X to 40X more servers than the switches that lash them together, depending on how you architect the network and the nature of the servers in the racks.

On top of this manufacturing capacity, Micas wants to be on the front end of the NPO and CPO adoption as well as cold plate and immersion cooling for network gear, as well as being a supplier of support for SONiC in its own right rather than having partnerships with companies like Aviz Networks, which launched its own SONiC distribution earlier this year and which was a partner of Ragile. Every Micas switch is tested with the community version of SONiC, and the company will sell what it calls Enhanced SONiC, which is its own bug fixes for the community edition plus any enhancements that customers ask for on top of this. And – this is important – Micas is perfectly happy to support any other network operating system that will run atop Broadcom ASICs, particularly the homegrown ones used by the hyperscalers and the cloud builders.

Micas Networks has rejiggered the product line it created under the prior Ragile and expanded it as well:

A 32-port 50 Gb/sec switch bas on the original Tomahawk 1 chip and compatible with the Open19 rack standard created by LinkedIn has been dropped, but a 1 Gb/sec 48 port switch based on the Trident 3-X2 chip has been added to the lineup. There is also a new 128-port 400 Gb/sec switch based on the Tomahawk 5, with another one supporting 800 Gb/sec ports in the works, according to Simmons. There are 400 Gb/sec switches based on the prior Tomahawk 3 and Tomahawk 4 ASICs, and 100 Gb/sec switches based on Trident 3, Tomahawk 2, and Tomahawk 3 chips. This combination provides a wide range of port counts, bandwidths, and features. There is no yet a switch based on the Jericho 2 or Jericho 3-AI ASICs from Broadcom, but with all of this fuss about generative AI, it is a foregone conclusion that Micas will eventually – and possibly quite soon – field an AI switch based on the latter. If you are chasing hyperscalers and cloud builders, this might be a good place to start innovating. Especially given that everyone we talk to outside of the traditional HPC market seems to be frustrated by the high cost and otherness of InfiniBand as the backbone of their AI clusters.

“We think we need some disruption in the market, and a different player who can do it with a little more innovation and help customers get a faster time to market,” says Simmons. “I think there is always an opportunity for somebody new to come in and mix up the game a little bit. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the hyperscalers, and we are definitely working on some of the newer technologies with them to get inroads with them.”

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  1. Great to see these energetic young folks targeting the $billion CPO/NPO switch market with much-needed low-cost high-quality devices!

    • Exactly! The last thing we need is a rerun of the 1996 Tickle Me Elmo disaster where online speculators would charge $1,500 for toys worth just $30, as seen recently also with GPUs. We definitely need more high-quality gear to be available at low cost, as proposed by Micas!

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