Startup Cumulus Networks is bringing a Linux operating system to data center networks and the burgeoning software-defined network market.
The company, led by veterans from companies such as Cisco Systems, Google and VMware, came out of stealth mode June 19 with Cumulus Linux, a networking OS that is aimed squarely at established networking vendors like Cisco, Juniper Networks and Hewlett-Packard.
Cumulus Linux gives the industry an operating system that is not tied to a vendor’s underlying hardware infrastructure, enabling organizations to do with networks what was done with servers when Linux came into the data center 15 years ago—drive down costs while improving performance, scalability and innovation.
“At the beginning of 2010, [co-founder and CTO] Nolan [Leake] and I had separately come to the same conclusion; data center networking was ready for a change,” co-founder and CEO J.R. Rivers said in a post on the company’s blog. “We envisioned a world where customers could acquire network capacity at hardware costs and deploy capacity with data center scale tools. We knew this vision was possible because customers expect it from their server infrastructure and some of the ‘big boys’ were already well along that path. Our conclusion was that the networking operating system of the future wasn't ‘based on Linux,’ but rather ‘is Linux.’ From that cornerstone, we set out to create a Linux distribution that, with a lot of help from our hardware friends, makes network capacity fast, easy, and affordable.”
Currently, most networking vendors have their own operating systems that run across their switch and router portfolios. For example, Cisco includes IOS, IOS-XR and NX-OS, while Juniper has Junos and Extreme Networks offers ExtremeXOS.
Despite all the talk about software-defined networks (SDNs) and the OpenFlow controller protocol—which promise greater network programmability and flexibility by decoupling network intelligence from the hardware infrastructure—“the OS running inside network gear—the networking switch—is still very much proprietary and tied to proprietary hardware,” Peter Levine of venture fund Andeessen Horowitz, which was one of the investors who has put $15 million into the company, said in his blog. “Today’s most ‘innovative’ network gear resembles a last-generation Sun Server: proprietary, inflexible, expensive and difficult to maintain.”
According to Cumulus officials, Cumulus Linux enables businesses to build infrastructures that offer higher capacity, are less complex and are more affordable than current networks. A key is to have an operating system that is not tightly integrated with proprietary and expensive hardware, and offers common Linux toolsets—including Chef, Puppet, Ganglia and collectd—to handle everything from orchestration and automation to monitoring.
With Cumulus Linux, businesses can leverage bare-metal or white-box hardware from the likes of Quanta, Accton and Agema that offers high price-performance returns, and are agile and flexible enough for new models like SDN, the officials said. It also works with overlay networks, such as what VMware is developing via its acquisition last year of SDN vendor Nicira.
The OS also will help drive down the cost of networks. Not only can they run on bare-metal network hardware that is less expensive than switches offered by the likes of Cisco or HP, but Cumulus Linux-running hardware also can operate alongside systems already in the network and enables routing between physical hardware and virtual servers, company officials said.
All this will be a boon for Web hosting and cloud service providers as well as businesses, according to Andreessen Horowitz’s Levine.
“Cloud and enterprise datacenters can now choose commodity hardware plus Cumulus Linux software to achieve cloud-scale networking that provides the flexibility and superior economics that only software can deliver,” he wrote.
The move toward SDNs is helping fuel the drive for more standards in the networking space. The Open Networking Foundation is the driving force behind OpenFlow, and the Facebook-led Open Compute Project is now looking to create an open-source switch.
According to Cumulus, the Cumulus Linux OS already is being used by cloud providers DeamHost and Fastly, as well as “one of the world’s biggest cloud providers” that the company did not name. Along with Andreessen Horowitz, other investors include Battery Ventures, Peter Wagner and four of the original founders of VMware.