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Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches

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Dell bare-metal switches will power Big Switch SDN

Dell integrates Big Switch Networks' SDN software onto its bare-metal switches, giving customers an alternative to ODMs.

Dell expanded its bare-metal switching approach by partnering with SDN startup Big Switch Networks. The partnership will allow enterprises to use Dell Switches and Big Switch's OpenFlow software to build SDN-based network monitoring fabrics.

Network engineers will be able to run Big Switch's Switch Light operating system on Dell's S4810 and S6000 switches, which will become pure OpenFlow data forwarding devices. Dell will sell these switches in a software package that includes Switch Light, as well as Big Switch's OpenFlow controller and Big Tap network monitoring application.

IT organizations will have the option of buying the hardware and software separately from both vendors, but by acquiring the entire package from Dell, customers get an integrated SDN product that includes Dell's professional services and frontline support.

In January, Dell became the first mainstream OEM switch vendor to embrace bare-metal switching when it announced its Open Networking initiative. In introducing Open Networking, Dell gave IT organizations the option of running Cumulus Networks' Linux-based network operating system on Dell switches rather than Dell's proprietary FTOS software stack. This disaggregated approach to network hardware allows data center operators to customize network infrastructure and adopt new approaches to network operations.

But Dell eschews labeling Open Networking as a bare-metal switching approach.

"We don't see Open Networking as bare-metal switching," said Tom Burns, vice president and general manager of Dell Networking. "We see this as a very tightly integrated set of solutions between the software provider and Dell Networking, providing both the integration and pre- and post-sales support."

"The Big Switch solution [is] for those customers who are looking for an end-to-end [SDN network], while the Cumulus relationship is more geared toward Linux-savvy customers who are interested in the unified management of servers and switches," Burns said.

Dell brings full support services to bare-metal switches

Cumulus and Big Switch, whose business models rely on bare-metal switching, typically work with original design manufacturers (ODMs) in Taiwan and China to build white-box switches that support their network operating systems. Yet many enterprises are unfamiliar and less than comfortable with sourcing their network infrastructure through such an unproven channel. Dell's arrival on the scene gives these vendors a partner with a respected enterprise support organization and a trustworthy supply chain.

With Dell, Big Switch's bare-metal SDN now has "the Dell brand name [and] global services and support behind it," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst with Milton, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group. "The service and support is a big deal."

The Dell-Big Switch combination is also a relatively low-risk path into SDN adoption, Laliberte said. Rather than deploying SDN in a production network, IT departments will use the hardware and software package to build an out-of-band, network monitoring fabric whose sole purpose is to direct traffic flows to network monitoring and security tools. Big Switch's Big Tap SDN application uses the OpenFlow network to collect traffic from the production network and mirror it directly to network monitoring tools or to network packet brokers from the likes of Gigamon and Ixia.

"I've spoken to some organizations that were contemplating leveraging [Big Tap] so they can get better coverage [with their monitoring tools]," Laliberte said. "And it's not that they are replacing what they already have, but that they are using this to augment what they have. With all the data center consolidation going on, networks are becoming bigger and scarier looking. So being able to monitor that environment is something we'll continue to see."

Big Tap is Big Switch's only commercially available SDN application. The company has expressed an intention to release either an SDN application that enables a "cloud fabric," or a production data center network later this year. Doug Murray, CEO of Big Switch, said that as his company releases new applications, it will strive to sell those products through this Dell partnership. For now, however, Big Switch is focused on using Big Tap to familiarize potential customers with SDN.

"[Big Tap] is out-of-band, so it takes away the perceived risk of trying SDN," Murray said. "This gets people incredibly comfortable with SDN."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, news director, or follow him on Twitter @ShamusTT.

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Essential Guide

Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches

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