Redefining datacenter connectivity with open source networking

SPONSORED FEATURE: The face of modern networking is changing dramatically in parallel with the exponential increase in the volume of data traffic over the last several years. Enterprises and cloud service providers alike are struggling to handle that transmission workload, whilst simultaneously trying to contain costs. It’s a tall order to deliver enough capacity and minimize latency without breaking the bank.

According to a recent study from global market research and consulting firm TeleGeography, global internet bandwidth has risen 29 percent over the last four years. The research also found that the average and peak international internet traffic increased at a rate of 30 percent between 2018 and 2022.

“Modern infrastructure needs to support escalating network traffic and data intensive applications, which is crucial for emerging Generative AI use cases,” confirms Saurabh Kapoor, Director of Product Management and Strategy for networking solutions at Dell Technologies. “The demand for higher bandwidth with open standards based infrastructure is greatly desired by networking users as it provides them more flexibility, choice, and freedom for vendor dependency.”

Networking in this high-traffic age doesn’t need to be complex and confounding though. Keeping up with traffic demands requires a flexible modern infrastructure built around a container-based architecture, with support for multi-vendor architecture, streamlined network automation, and enhanced monitoring, says Dell. Taking this approach to networking for both datacenter and cloud service needs should allow for sufficient scalability and capacity.

Many organizations are already shifting toward open-source networking in an attempt to keep up and perhaps even stay ahead. The move to Linux and open-source software has typically been more significant on the developer side, but networking is rapidly moving in the open-source direction. Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC) is an open-source Debian-based Linux network operating system (NOS) for example. It’s already being put to work in hyperscale datacenters and cloud service providers (CSPs), and accommodating massive amounts of network traffic data.

Now SONiC is finding its way into more enterprise datacenters, converged networks, wide-area networks, and supporting edge network devices. In fact, Gartner forecasts that 40 percent of organizations with large datacenter networks will be running SONiC in production environments by 2025. Other analysts expect SONiC adoption will significantly outpace market growth over the next few years. Alan Weckel, analyst with the 650 Group, predicts SONiC worldwide revenue will exceed $5 billion by 2026.

SONiC is finding its way

SONiC is not new on the scene. Microsoft developed SONiC as an in-house project to support its Azure datacenters. Microsoft first released SONiC in 2016, contributed it to the Open Compute Project (OCP) later that year, and SONiC became part of the Linux Foundation in April of 2022.

It’s built atop a Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), so it decouples the network software from the hardware, which lets SONiC run across different hardware platforms. SONiC can also run on more than 100 different datacenter switches from multiple vendors. It places each module in independent docker containers to maintain cohesion, while reducing coupling between disjointed ones. It can provide a full range of network functions, including Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) and remote direct memory access (RDMA), among others. It also works with configuration automation tools such as Ansible, Puppet, and Chef.

“A big advantage of Linux based architecture is that it leads to standardization, and the ability to tailor the NOS to specific environments,” explains Kapoor. “It’s easy for developers and contributors to come together and put apps on it, add features and capabilities, and have a unified network operating system enabled across a variety of silicon and switching platforms.”

Dell has developed its own distribution of the SONiC NOS – Enterprise SONiC Distribution by Dell Technologies – configured to support enterprise, telco, CSP and retail edge use cases. The company already has significant history and expertise with SONiC, having worked on it with Microsoft for years. At this point, having provided more than one million lines of code and thousands of bug fixes, Dell remains a leading contributor to SONiC.

Dell has positioned Enterprise SONiC to meet three primary enterprise datacenter networking use cases:

• Datacenter fabric to support cloud-native applications: Dell Enterprise SONiC is configured as a flat, scalable, leaf-spine datacenter fabric using Layer 3 BGP to support cloud-native applications, such as Kubernetes container environments. This configuration is most similar to hyperscale datacenter networks where SONiC has already proven its utility, but is specifically configured for enterprise use.

• Datacenter fabric to support Ethernet VPNs: The is also a scalable datacenter fabric, but this version is configured to support Dell’s Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN) tunneling Layer 2 traffic over a Layer 3 BGP Ethernet VPN. This configuration is meant for enterprise datacenters running a wide variety of applications.

• Bare metal provisioning: In this case, Enterprise SONiC is meant to automate bare metal provisioning for closed-loop networks.

There are five different Dell Enterprise SONiC bundles available: Enterprise Standard, Enterprise Premium, Cloud Standard, Cloud Premium, and Edge Standard. The first two bundles are configured for enterprise datacenter use, the cloud bundles to support cloud datacenters and cloud-native applications, and the final Edge bundle to support network edge devices.

Dell Enterprise SONiC already has the feature set, centralized management platform, security hardening, and support intended for high volume datacenters says Dell, which has validated Enterprise SONiC across hardware, switches, and software from multiple vendors, and tested the NOS in hyperscale environments.

A forthcoming release (4.2) of the software due to debut in November 2023 will add more features to that list. These include EVPN Multihoming (EVPN-MH) which improves support for active server redundancy for example, as well as Q-in-Q tunneling to help expand the VLAN space across public networks. Elsewhere Secure boot helps ensure that only approved operating systems run on a particular PC.

Partnerships complete the effort

The company has established several partnerships to support its Enterprise SONiC distribution. These partnerships provide validated, enterprise-grade tools that support and expand SONiC’s capabilities. Some of the tools include AI- and ML-augmented data analytics, predictive and proactive monitoring, intent-based configuration management, multi-vendor network management, automation and orchestration tools.

Kapoor explains the importance of the ecosystem of partners, focusing on Augtera, MetalSoft, BeyondEdge, and Racksnet: “The idea is to bring in niche capabilities that help customers ease network lifecycle management and monitoring from Day 0 to Day 2 and beyond.”

Metalsoft provides bare metal orchestration capabilities. “We needed that capability to put up bare metal environments and orchestrate networking,” explains Kapoor. “Metalsoft simplifies bare metal orchestration.”

The BeyondEdge partnership helps fabric orchestration and management across multiple environments into a unified view. “In BeyondEdge, we saw capabilities that allowed end to end fabric orchestration from Data Center to Edge It is well-aligned with the Dell Enterprise SONiC vision, and we wanted to unify these environments with the same set of tools and technologies to simplify network management for our customers”

BeyondEdge can manage different environments from the datacenter to the edge into a single dashboard.

Racksnet provides template-based constructs for network management for SONiC-based networks and others, providing one-click, template-based processes so customers don’t have to worry about configuring and administering those complex environments for themselves.

Augtera Networks provides predictive monitoring for SONiC. Their solution learns topology, patterns and correlations from every possible on-prem or multi-cloud data source, finds application aware preventive “AI Needles” and offer AI/ML based network monitoring.

There are also many other partners on board, says Kapoor, that provide specific orchestration and automation capabilities. “From the Dell perspective, we’re always looking for potential future partnerships to extend the SONiC capabilities into broader use cases ,” he says. “The goal for our partnerships is to offer niche fabric orchestration and monitoring technologies with greater choice and flexibility for our customers”

Working with the Linux Foundation

Naturally, Dell is also working hand-in-glove with the Linux Foundation on different initiatives and projects to expand SONiC’s reach.

Dell Technologies features across all SONiC group and committees within the Linux Foundation. Kapoor personally represents the company on the SONiC governing board with input from other organizations such as Broadcom, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, and more. “Our charter is to increase SONiC governance, growth, and enablement across more use cases to ensure SONiC is the future of networking,” he adds.

There is also a technical steering committee which works though “day-to-day technology stuff to help ensure contributions from community receive full code reviews, and acknowledgement.

The third group is the outreach committee. “This helps to champion SONiC across major industry events and conferences ,” according to Kapoor, “and to bring more advocacy and awareness of SONiC and its adoption”

The outreach committee works closely with the governance board and technical steering committee to make sure the Linux Foundation is doing everything it can to expand the proliferation of SONiC across the globe and across all industries, often by putting up sponsorship dollars for industry events.
The primary aim is to bring choice, flexibility, and take out the element of vendor lock, Kapoor continues: “Openness creates more opportunities to collaborate, innovate, and drive velocity”

Looking ahead

As network traffic continues to increase and more technology players come into the market, working with an open-source NOS like SONiC can help provide more flexibility, scalability, and performance. SONiC has demonstrated its performance in hyperscale environments like cloud service providers, and now Dell plans to expand its use within the broader enterprise markets.

“Networking is basically following in the footsteps of compute. Just like Linux led to a lot of standardization within compute, we see that same trend happening on networking side with SONiC now,” explains Kapoor. “The future is open.”

Sponsored by Dell.

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