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Cumulus Outs Cisco-Threatening Linux Network OS

Cumulus Linux promises to wreck Cisco’s traditional business model

The eagle seen flying over San Jose Wednesday was not a good omen for Cisco Systems. That quickly became evident from the way the creature befouled Cisco headquarters and beat its wings so that it sounded like it was humming the tune “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.”

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Mountain View, a start-up called Cumulus Networks was breaking cover after three years in stealth mode. It came out carrying a standalone network operating system decoupled from the underlying hardware infrastructure.

Called Cumulus Linux, it promises to wreck Cisco’s traditional business model.

The widgetry “makes the switch look like a Linux server with high-performance routing optimizations. Essentially it’s just a routing-optimized Linux server,” a close friend of the family said.

Cumulus says it can replace the complex proprietary network solutions that are pricey to buy, pricey to maintain, interoperably challenged, error-prone and the source of vendor lock-in.

It would substitute inexpensive commodity hardware that can be automated by the new generation of “software-defined” data center software and native Linux-based toolsets. It says the resulting network will be faster, simpler and cheaper than what we’ve got, and support the “new more fluid application architectures with agility and efficiency.”

It claims Cumulus Linux will do for networking what Linux did for servers, particularly, one supposes, Sun servers, whose business was rotted out by Red Hat Linux.

As Cumulus co-founder and CEO JR Rivers remembers, “Having a common OS broke vendor lock-in, drove down server hardware cost, allowed scale-out architectures, and provided a common platform for innovations like virtualization….We are bringing that same transformational impact that Linux has had on data center economics and innovation to the networking side of the house.”

Cumulus already has a few customers including cloud service provider DreamHost and SSD-powered content delivery network Fastly, and – from the way Amazon Distinguished Engineer James Hamilton prettily blogged about the start-up – one suspects that what Cumulus’ press release describes as “one of the world’s biggest cloud providers” is none other than Amazon Web Services, which evidently has Cumulus Linux in “large-scale commercial deployment.”

The new company’s also got a $15 million A round led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from Battery Ventures, four of the VMware’s original founders including Diane Greene and her husband, Sanford University Professor Mendel Rosenblum, and Peter Wagner, late of Accel.

The Wall Street Journal, by the way, says Greene is using Cumulus in her own new secret venture.

Cumulus is partnering with Broadcom and VMware (for its Nicira software-defined networking, don’t you know).

Cumulus sees high-speed bare-metal switches coming from ODMs like Quanta, Accton and Agema offering unprecedented price/performance running Cumulus Linux, a tailored version of Debian.

By providing an underlying OS for common Linux-based toolsets it would simplify network orchestration, automation and monitoring because customers could use familiar automation tools like Chef or Puppet and monitoring tools like Ganglia and collectd.

Cumulus also works with overlay network technologies such as network virtualization from VMware. Because it sits at the edge of the network, Cumulus Linux allows routing between physical and virtual servers – what it calls “an unprecedented capability.”

Hardware running Cumulus Linux can run alongside existing systems and – because the operating system uses industry-standard switching and routing protocols – common Linux-based toolsets can administer both the server and network infrastructure.

Bob Laliberte, an Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst, says, “We are seeing a high level of interest among large enterprises wanting to replicate the efficiency and agility of mega-scale data centers such as Google’s” and Cumulus “is opening up the Google-style model to a much broader set of companies.”

Ben Kepes, principal and analyst at diversity.net.nz, more pointedly said:

“For too long the networking world has been artificially constrained by proprietary solutions that tie specific hardware to deeply proprietary software. The launch of Cumulus Linux changes all that and could well be the point which heralds a blossoming of innovation in the networking world fueled by open hardware and open software. In the way that Linus Torvalds gave users alternatives to the proprietary hegemony, so too could a best-of-breed ecosystem in networking platforms break open this cozy world.”

Cumulus Linux is commercially available now through an annual subscription-pricing model that includes support and maintenance, and scales based on the switch performance capacity.

It claims that with ODM hardware running Cumulus Linux 10G can be deployed for the price of 1G.

It currently supports various 48-port 10G 1U switches and figures a cost of around $7,400 for the hardware and software license.

Hamilton says the price point “makes a standard network support contract look like the hostage payout that it actually is.” He also said the widgetry can deliver 512 ports of 10G or 128 ports of 40G in a single chassis.

The company says Cumulus Linux isn’t open source “but contains a large number of open source components. Those open source components are available in Debian or other upstream repositories. Cumulus Linux’ proprietary intellectual property encompasses IP surrounding hardware acceleration for which Cumulus Networks is not in the position to distribute source code. For the rest of Cumulus Linux functionality, Cumulus Networks is committed to pushing bug fixes and enhancements into the open source community.”

See http://perspectives.mvdirona.com/.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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