Arista Goes Big on Microsoft's SONiC Operating System

eWEEK NETWORKING ANALYSIS: Arista continues down the path of openness by expanding its support for SONiC.


This week Arista announced it is extending its support for the open-source SONiC network operating system (NOS). SONiC is a Linux-based operating system developed by Microsoft—initially for Azure—but Microsoft put it into the open-source community to broaden its usefulness.

Linux has had tremendous promise in networking for years, but the potential has never really turned into reality in a big way. The concept of SONiC was to create a single operating system that could be ported across different types of hardware and silicon. 

SONiC Has Been Long on Promise but Short on Adoption 

However, despite the name brand of Microsoft attached to it, SONiC has had very little appeal outside of the cloud giants. These organizations have hundreds of network engineers, many of them doctorates along with massive numbers of developers to work with the Linux-based NOS. The big webscale companies use SONiC to build custom software for orchestration and control over their own environments. The network matters to cloud providers, and they have the staff and resources to take advantage of SONiC. 

But what about the rest of the world? The network matters to banks, retailers, health-care organizations, colleges and other companies as well, but these organizations don’t have the armies of engineers needed to fully leverage SONiC. This is where the support from Arista can pay big dividends. Customers can get the benefits of using open source without the associated risk of having to write their own code and support it internally.

In addition, most of the webscale companies will run the SONiC on white boxes, and that’s fine for them but you typically can’t buy those from your local VAR. Arista provides a fully baked and tested hardware platform, providing the enterprise-grade assurance a cloud titan doesn’t need. 

SONiC Requires Significant Manual Overhead 

To leverage SONiC, there are a number of architectural considerations and key attributes required. The architecture is built into the software stack. The attributes include things like management, telemetry, network features, choice of silicon and hardware platform. Most of these have to be built by the network team or stitched together from community components.

If not done correctly, it can impact reliability and performance, which can have an adverse effect on businesses that rely on the network—which is almost every company today. 

Arista’s SAI Makes SONiC Simple 

Arista was ideally suited to solve this problem, because SONiC isn’t its first rodeo in the area of Linux-based operating systems. Its own operating system, EOS, is built on Linux, so Arista could take the experiences and lessons learned with it and extend it to SONiC. 

To enable this, Arista has outfitted its software with a Switch Abstraction Layer (SAI), which can be thought of as a shim that sits between the Arista hardware and the open-source software. SAI acts as a translator of sorts to create operating consistency while being able to leverage Arista hardware. SAI enables Arista to deliver a full suite of features out of the box, including streaming telemetry, APIs, troubleshooting and DevOps tools and support for multiple platforms. Without SAI, customers would need to build most of these or scour the open-source community for them. 

Another benefit of leveraging Arista and SAI is that customers get Arista hardware. No offense to the white box vendors, but the quality of white boxes tends to vary vendor to vendor. I understand that software runs the world, but it needs to run on something, and the choice of the right something can make a big difference in performance. There are power and cooling issues, optics, drivers, reliability characteristics and a whole lot more. Arista’s hardware is used by the biggest companies in the world and can save companies hundreds of hours a year of troubleshooting and support. 

As I pointed out in my earlier post regarding NVIDIA acquiring Cumulus, the concept of Linux as a network operating system has been kicking around for years, but it’s failed to catch on. This isn’t because it doesn’t work, but because it requires too much manual overhead. Arista’s support of SONiC creates that ideal “best of both worlds” scenario to let customers de-risk the use of it. 

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.