Dell Disaggregates Network Software with New OS10

The company is aiming the OS at networks now, but sees enterprises using the Linux-based OS10 across servers and storage in the future.

open networking

Dell two years ago unveiled its Open Networking initiative, a plan to enable businesses to buy a Dell-branded switch and then choose from among a range of Dell or third-party operating systems and applications.

The idea was to give enterprises options and flexibility when determining the best technologies for running their workloads, and to enable them to get closer to creating the type of agile, scalable and affordable data center environments that larger hyperscale players enjoy.

Now the vendor is taking the concept another step forward with the introduction of Operating System 10 (OS10), an offering that disaggregates the network software from the underlying hardware to give customers more flexibility and programmability in choosing how the software is used in the data center. Initially, the focus will be on networking, according to Tom Burns, vice president and general manager of Dell's networking and enterprise infrastructure business.

However, the larger vision for OS10 is to enable enterprises to eventually use it as a data center operating system that will allow their networking, storage and server resources to converge onto a common platform, giving them levels of IT flexibility and programmability that cloud companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook enjoy, Burns told eWEEK. It's a long-term plan that will roll out over time.

"This isn't just about the initial release," Burns said.

Software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV) are rapidly changing the way enterprises and service providers think about networking. They put the control plane and networking tasks into software that can run on lower-cost commodity systems from white-box makers. Dell in 2014 introduced its Open Networking effort, which allowed for operating systems and software from some SDN vendors—such as Cumulus Networks, Midokura, Big Switch Networks and Pluribus Networks—to run alongside Dell's software stack.

It was one of the early entrants into what Gartner analysts began calling the "brite box" space—branded hardware that offers software choices from other vendors.

With OS10, Dell is taking the disaggregation further, bringing an OS platform built on an unmodified Linux kernel and using the Open Compute Project's Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) to offer a common language that developers can use to create new networking applications. In addition, OS10 can support tradition Layer 2 and 3 network functions and services, not only from Dell but also from other vendors, as well as native Linux and open-source applications. Users can optimize their IT operations for particular workloads, according to Dell officials.

However, farther down the road, Dell officials are looking at OS10 as a single operating platform for entire data center infrastructures, leveraging the unmodified Linux kernel to converge operations across networking, compute and storage, and common open-source tools, addressing the demands of the growing DevOps community for a common development platform across all data center resources. It's part of Dell's vision "compute-centric, software-defined data center," Burns said.

He wouldn't say when he expected OS10 to expand beyond networking and across the data center, but that's the trajectory for the new operating system. For now, Dell expects the base OS10 module to begin shipping in March, with Dell-developed application modules entering beta testing to prepare for release later in the year. Dell hardware released over the past two years will support OS10, Burns said.

Dell isn't the only top-tier vendor offering branded networking gear that can run third-party software. Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) offers its Altoline portfolio of switches, which can run Cumulus' Linux OS and Pica8's PicOS offering. Juniper Networks in late 2014 introduced its OCX1100 switch, which is based on designs from the Open Compute Project and runs the vendor's Junos network OS. In November 2015, Juniper unveiled a disaggregated version of Junos, enabling third-party software to run on the Juniper switches running the operating system and enabling Junos to run on other vendors' switches that are compliant with the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE).