NVIDIA Acquires Cumulus to Accelerate Open Networking

eWEEK NEWS AND TREND ANALYSIS: Cumulus provides a strategic acquisition for NVIDIA to establish itself a stronger networking vendor.

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This week in a blog post, graphics processing unit (GPU) market leader NVIDIA announced it was acquiring open networking pioneer Cumulus Networks. NVIDIA is best known for its GPUs and accelerated computing platforms but does have a strong presence in networking through Mellanox, which it acquired in 2019. 

The combination of Mellanox and Cumulus gives NVIDIA a “full stack” to deliver open networking. This includes silicon, NICs systems, data center interconnects, analytics, and now an open-source and standards operating system. 

Cumulus Is an Open Networking Pioneer 

Cumulus was one of the early vendors to embrace open networking and has a Linux-based operating system that runs on more than 100 hardware platforms, including HPE, Dell, Lenovo, Facebook, its own Cumulus Express and a number of NVIDIA Mellanox switches. In fact, the ultra-fast, 400 Gig-E top of rack NVIDIA Spectrum switch ships with Cumulus Linux. Cumulus has also been a strong supporter of the Microsoft Azure-developed SONiC operating system. Unlike some of the other open networking vendors that have struggled to survive, Cumulus has established a strong book of business. The company has about 2,000 customers and is used by about one-third of the Fortune 100. 

The debate surrounding open networking has raged on since the early days of software-defined networking (SDN). The theory is that organizations can use white boxes and customize their operating systems. This has had broad appeal with web-scale companies, but the concept has been slow to catch on with mainstream enterprises, although the tide is beginning to turn. 

Linux-Based Network Operating Systems Provide a High Degree of Customization

One of the benefits a Linux-based operating system brings is that it’s highly customizable and gives the deploying organization much tighter control over the network. Also, it’s easy to adapt the network to the different types of silicon available from companies like Broadcom, Cavium and Mellanox. Another benefit is that, because Linux is open source, there is a wide range of tools that can be used, including automation, configuration, monitoring and analytics tools. Cumulus’ NetQ real-time visibility and lifecycle management product is a good example. 

Historically, the concept of writing one’s own network operating system and supporting it in-house has scared the pants off most engineers, which is why the appeal of Linux as an NOS has been limited to a handful of large companies. A vendor such as Cumulus obviates the need to write an operating system from scratch and brings a level of stability and support into the mix. Even with that, some network engineers will fear the unknown and want a turnkey solution with hardware and software support, and that’s where the NVIDIA acquisition will have appeal. 

Cumulus Appeals to Companies That Want Tighter Control Over Their Networks 

A good way to think about the attitude of a traditional switch from a mainstream vendor versus a Cumulus-supported product is that the buyer of the latter thinks of the network as a competitive asset and needs to customize it to gain an advantage over his/her peers. Organizations that eschew that model and stick with the tried-and-true approach prefer the safety net of having the network backed by a brand such as Cisco, HPE or Extreme. 

This acquisition closes the gap because NVIDIA can offer a turnkey-like product with the same level of support but also the custom ability and control that one gets with Linux. Don’t get me wrong: The majority of buyers will stick with their mainstream vendors, but I do expect to see the appeal of Cumulus broaden post-acquisition.

COVID-19 Accelerates Digital Transformation, Which Accelerates Open Networking 

Another factor that is creating an attitude change in networking is that digital transformation plans have been accelerated because of COVID-19. Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated that Microsoft has seen two years’ worth of digital transformation business in just two months of its third quarter. The impact of COVID-19 is forcing companies to operate differently and, for most companies, there’s a stark realization that the network is the business. 

NVIDIA Is a Strong Networking Company 

This purchase is another shrewd one for NVIDIA, which is proving to be a very savvy networking company. This is impressive, because the company has historically lived at the system and processor level. One of the interesting aspects of the data center is that the network has become the backplane of the new server. Consider what’s happened with servers over the years: What was once a full turnkey product has become disaggregated with storage, processors, memory and other components. What connects these pools? The network does, and it needs to be as fast and reliable as a server backplane. NVIDIA understands that. 

NVSwitch is a great example of this. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, ray tracing and other GPU-optimized processes require more and more processors, but there’s only so much speed one GPU can pump out. NVSwitch is essentially an array of GPUs connected with, you guessed it, a high-speed network that makes eight GPUs look like a single big one. 

Mellanox enabled NVIDIA to take accelerated computing to another level and interconnect multiple servers with a high-speed fabric. Cumulus creates tighter control over the NOS and lets customers customize it for their own unique needs. 

One final note: NVIDIA has strong relationships with other network vendors, such as Cisco Systems, Arista and HPE, and Cumulus should not be looked at as a shot across the bow of these vendors. Cumulus and Mellanox give NVIDIA customers more options. The network is critical to the success of every market NVIDIA plays in, and it can provide a solution for whatever flavor of network the customer may want. 

Cumulus is an ideal acquisition for NVIDIA because it extends its value proposition of being more than a GPU vendor. While there are other providers of GPUs, none has managed to gain much ground on the market leader as NVIDIA provides more than the processors. It’s always strived to deliver an end-to-end experience, and Cumulus is another step in that direction. 

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.