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Dell taps Sons of Cisco for networking Manhattan project

Cumulus Networks deal sees Private Dell split network software from hardware

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When you have a techology division that, in real estate terms, would be generously termed a "fixer-upper" there's little to lose by giving the keys to a young, ambitious competitor and welcoming them in to give the crumbling place a lick of paint.

At least, that seems to be Dell's view – why else would it cede strategic control over its networking software to startup Cumulus Networks?

The now-private tech firm is now the first major US OEM to announce full support globally for the company's standalone network OS on its gear.

"We're doing this for the innovative markets that really have a large IT staff like a web tech or a financial," explains Dell networking veep Arpit Joshipura. "[We] believe in the classic disaggregation model that has happened in the servers and PCs in the last 20 years."

That smashing apart of software and hardware has not taken hold in networking, but there are signs that with the rise of companies like Cumulus, and various open hardware initiatives by big buyers like Facebook, this is beginning to change.

The announcement means that Dell's S4180 and S6000 switches will offer customers a choice of networking software via Cumulus's Open Network Installer Environment (ONIE) technology. Initially, that choice will be between Dell's Force10 software and Cumulus Networks' own OS, though this should broaden in time.

Dell wants to be the first major OEM to offer a networking OS choice because it reckons it can hoover up a bunch of customers, generate a lot of goodwill, and make enough money on the underlying hardware that it won't hurt the multinational too terribly if its traditional Force10 networking software revenues go away.

"This is where Dell is different. We were the first one to embark on commercial silicon seven years ago," Joshipura explains. "We stopped doing our own ASICs compared to a Cisco or HP who still do their own. We believe that is what the future holds and you're better off with commercial silicon."

Dell reckons that by adopting this open model it can put the boot into Cisco, which has responded to developments like Cumulus Networks and Facebook's open hardware schemes by doubling down on its blending of proprietary software with proprietary ASICs.

Cumulus Networks's chief J R Rivers claims he persuaded Michael Dell in a chat of the merit of this approach: "I said to him at one point 'You're making customers like your software to buy your hardware right now - some of them will and some of them won't. For every one of them that doesn't you lost that deal," he explains.

"In the modern DC if you lose the network deal you might lose the server deal, you might lose the storage deal, you might lose the whole thing."

The Dell partnership solves one of the greatest problems that Cumulus has faced during its so far brief life: wet feet from buyers who become nervous at the idea of having to have two support contracts for their network provider, one with Cumulus Networks for the software, and one with their hardware-maker (for example with Asian device titan Quanta).

As you'd expect, Cumulus Networks is chuffed about the deal, and thinks that Dell is more in tune with its vision of how the networking market should work than, say, an IBM or HP. "As a business, [Dell] don't try to make an unreasonable profit on moving hardware. They're not trying to sell commodity components for a massive markup," Rivers says. ®

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