The data network was once an IT resource to which few business leaders paid attention. Most people simply considered the network to be the “plumbing” of a company and little else. That opinion has been changing, because the network has rapidly increased in importance as digital transformation has taken hold in the business world.
The building blocks of digital are cloud computing, mobility, internet of things and artificial intelligence, all of which are network-centric. This means as business becomes more digital, the network increases in strategic value. At the same time, we have seen the rise of new and emerging applications and technologies, from data analytics to virtual and augmented reality, automated vehicles and edge computing.
The growing demand for faster speeds, more bandwidth and lower latency has put the network front-and-center in the IT world. Data and applications are no longer confined to central data centers, and they need to move quickly between those data centers, the edge and multiple clouds.
The network also has undergone significant change. Networks are now increasingly virtualized, with software-defined networking (SDN), network-function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). They’ve also become more intelligent—look at intent-based networking—and the decoupling of the data plane and network functions from the underlying proprietary hardware has given rise to open switches that can run third-party operating systems and software. Cisco Systems, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and other established vendors now offer branded gear that can run software from the likes of Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks and Pluribus Networks; often their own software can run on hardware from other vendors.
It also has enabled original-design manufacturers (ODMs) that make unbranded white-box switches to gain ground in the highly competitive enterprise networking space.
In today’s IT world, networks are now the foundation, the key enabling of modern computing; central to networks are switches that are the “traffic cops” for data flows of all kinds.
San Jose, Calif.
Value proposition for potential buyers: Cisco Systems was the first company to anticipate the internet and its infrastructure needs back in the early 1990s, and as a result has put a stake in the ground that no other company has been able to eclipse. Any discussion about anything networking has to start with Cisco. The company has been at the stop of the market for the past 25 years, and even throughout its ongoing transformation into less of a box-maker and more of a software and solutions provider, Cisco has continued to be the dominant hardware player in the space. Its portfolio of switches bears that out.
- Highly regarded overall: The company has long been atop Gartner’s Magic Quadrant of data center networking leaders and, according to IDC, owned more than 56 percent of the Ethernet switch market in 2020 and was the leader in the highly competitive 25/50/100Gb space.
- Range of offerings: The vendor has made available an array of offerings, from its Nexus data center and cloud switches to switches for LANs, WANs, storage solutions, industrial Ethernet environments and small businesses. No other company has that many choices.
- Use cases: large enterprise production; military and government workloads; financial services.
- Top in marketshare: Cisco has become the top SD-WAN infrastructure vendor, thanks in part to its Meraki unit, and its massive Catalyst 9000 switch is the hardware foundation of its expanding intent-based networking efforts.
Value proposition for potential buyers: Juniper Networks has been on an acquisition binge lately, adding both Apstra and 128 Technology in the last six months. While most of the mainstream network vendors have some variation of an IBN solution today, Apstra is the only one that works across multiple vendors. Apstra supports most of the mainstream network vendors, including Juniper, Arista and Cisco Systems, but it also supports some alternate vendors such as SONiC, Cumulus, NVIDIA and VMware. This lets Apstra customers enjoy the benefits of IBN without the fear of being locked into a single vendor.
128 Technology makes a highly regarded intelligent SD-WAN, which does something called session routing to build service fabrics that change the way networks run. The session approach replaces the traditional network centric tunnel-based overlay with a service-based routing approach with distributed control. The 128 Technology approach makes network decisions with user-level information instead of network data simplifying network architecture, making it easy to secure and optimize.
Overall, Juniper has a switch lineup that runs from the data center and into the cloud. It’s QFX series of high performance and density systems are designed for both data centers and telecommunications environments and fit into a wide array of deployments, including top-of-rack and end-of-row as well as access and leaf, lean spine, and core-and-spine.
- Switches support range of workloads: The EX series of Ethernet switches provide for access, aggregation and core networking for branch, campus, data center and service provider environments, and can support everything from 1GbE to 100GbE.
- New products: The company has added 400GbE capabilities with its QFX10008 and 10016 switches.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Value proposition for potential buyers: Arista is smaller than rival Cisco, but it has made significant gains in marketshare and product development during the last several years. The company in December 2020 announced its DANZ (Data ANalyZer) Monitoring Fabric (DMF) available on its switching fabrics. In February 2020, Arista acquired Big Switch Networks, which brought network packet broker (NPB) capabilities.
Prior to the acquisition, Arista had developed its DANZ capabilities, which could be thought of as packet broker light capabilities. This gave Arista multiple monitoring and visibility solutions. The DANZ capabilities integrated into its switches were developed in house. The second was the Big Switch packet broker, which could be used across Arista’s cloud titan and enterprise customer base in both public and private cloud environments. Big Switch also offers a Big Cloud Fabric used in private clouds and interoperated with VMware VxRail, Nutanix and other vendors.
Arista’s Ethernet switch revenues jumped 27.6 percent in 2018 and its share grew from 5.6 percent a year earlier to 6.6 percent, according to IDC. Arista has put legitimate marketshare pressure on leader Cisco Systems in the tech sector during the past five years.
- Support is highly regarded by others in the industry.
- Highly respected in the industry: Arista, which sits with Cisco and Juniper in the “leader” section of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, offers a range of switches that scale from 10Gb to 100Gb and support leaf and spine architectures.
- Use cases: technology, science, oil and gas exploration, high-end workloads of all kinds.
- Arista has developed what it calls Spline, which collapses the leaf and spine into a single tier for high-performance, highly dense deployments, such as Ethernet storage, clouds and distributed computing.
- Arista 7250QX Series is a switch designed specifically for the Spline architecture; aimed at very progressive users.
San Jose, Calif.
Value proposition for potential buyers: Extreme Networks recently announced its Universal Hardware Platform, which untethers the underlying hardware from software features. Most network vendors typically have multiple product lines designed for different use cases. Universal Hardware Platform enables customers to purchase hardware and then select the software load that makes the most sense. For example, Extreme’s 5520 Series Universal Switch can run either the ExtremeXOS or VOSS operating system, each designed for different use cases. The secret sauce for Extreme is its ExtremeCloud IQ cloud management platform that brings cloud level flexibility to networking.
Overall, Extreme Networks has a solid lineup of data center switches that can scale from 1Gb to 100Gb, giving organizations flexibility when connecting their systems. At the same time, the company also has put a growing focus on supplying switches for deployment outside the firewall, in particular in branch officers, in the cloud and out at the network edge—as illustrated by the launch of its Smart OmniEdge networking solution last year—which is where much of the action in these days.
Extreme remains the most undervalued network vendor. Several years ago, Extreme was fast-tracking to irrelevancy, but then a new management team, led by CEO Ed Meyercord and COO Norman Rice, executed a plan to roll up other network assets, including Avaya Networking, Brocade’s Data Center Business, Aerohive and the WiFi business from Zebra. It then had to bring these assets together into a comprehensive portfolio resulting in Universal Hardware.
- Frontline products: Key standalone switch products include the SLX 9540, which the company describes as a versatile data center edge switch that offers high density for data center interconnect, WAN edge and internet exchange point deployments.
- Use cases: General business with one or more data centers; government agencies; retail; financial services; technology.
- Edge computing connections: The CES 2000 offers edge access capabilities.
- What the market says: Gartner has Extreme and Huawei as the only “challengers” to Cisco, Juniper and Arista in its Magic Quadrant.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise/New H3C Group
Houston, Texas / Hangzhou, China
Value proposition for potential buyers: This partnership has resulted in the most significant merger in this sector. HPE offers a range of data center 1-100Gb switches under its FlexFabric brand, from top-of-rack switches to fully modular core switches. In addition, through its $3 billion acquisition of Aruba Networks in 2015, HPE offers Aruba 8400 campus core and aggregation switch series aimed at the cloud, mobile and IoT environments. It includes a programmable OS and a network analytics engine. Networking infrastructure isn’t HPE’s main line of business; it more or less supplies it for its committed customer base.
Value proposition for potential buyers of New H3C Group: New H3C Group sits on the cusp of moving from the “niche” section of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant to the “challenger” section. The company offers eight series of data center switches and more than a dozen campus switches that range from the S7500X Next Generation Core Switch Series for cloud service data centers down to the S1200 switch, an unmanaged Gigabit switch that comes in desktop and rack-mount models for small businesses looking for basic Layer-2 connectivity.
- HPE moving deeper into networking: Aruba has become a key part of HPE’s edge strategy, including several switch series.This gives the parent company a legitimate commitment in the new-gen networking infrastructure market.
- Open switches a key product: Like Dell EMC, HPE’s lineup also includes open switches. The Altoline switches run third-party software from the likes of Big Switch and Pica8 and are made in partnership with ODM Accton Technology.
- Moving up in marketshare against staunch competition: In the third quarter 2018, HPE’s Ethernet switch revenue jumped 12 percent over the previous year, with its market share growing to 5.7 percent. This bodes well for the company.
Round Rock, Texas
Value proposition for potential buyers: Dell Technologies has long seen itself as a one-stop shop for all things enterprise IT, and the data center networking business under Dell EMC is no different. The company offers several high-performance data center switches in its S- and Z-Series and the N-Series for its managed campus access and aggregation switches.However, networking infrastructure is not the company’s No. 1 business, because it is among the world leaders in hyperconverged and converged data center equipment other than networking.
- Big in open networking: Dell EMC offers a series of Open Networking switches, which carry the Dell EMC brand but can run third-party network OSes and software from vendors like Cumulus, Big Switch and Pluribus (as well as Dell EMC’s own OS9 and OS10.
- Choice of virtualization options: The Open Networking switches also offer a choice of virtualization options—VMware NSX, Midokura MidoNet and Nuage Networks—and leverages the open-source ONIE (Open Network Install Environment) to enable zero-touch installation of third-party software.
- Use cases: All over the board; Dell is strong in the midrange enterprise sector, always has been, and it’s no different in networking infrastructure. Midrange-size business with one or more data centers is a mainstay; government agencies; retail; financial services; technology.
Value proposition for potential buyers: The massive Chinese tech company is seeing momentum in its data center networking business. Gartner has it placed solidly in the “challenger” category—edging ever close to the line that would bring it into “leader” area—and IDC noted that in the third quarter 2018, Huawei’s Ethernet switch revenue grew 21.3 percent year-over-year, and its market share hit 8.6 percent. However, lawmaker worries about the company’s possible close ties to the Chinese government—which some see as posing a national security threat—has made it difficult for Huawei to make inroads in the United States as well as some other markets. Still, Huawei offers the CloudEngine 12800 series core switches, the CloudEngine 5800, 6800, 7800 and 8800 fixed access switches and CloudEngine 1800V virtual switch. It also sells a broad range of campus switches.
ODM white-box makers
Value proposition for potential buyers: The trend toward network virtualization, with the disaggregation of the software from the underlying gear, opened a door for smaller ODMs like Quanta, Celestica, Accton, Delta, Inventec and Foxconn to gain more ground in the data center switch space, particularly among cloud providers. The rise of SDN and NFV meant that organizations could choose to buy low-cost white boxes and put whatever networking operating system they want onto them. The open networking efforts by Dell EMC, HPE and others were meant to not only give customers more options but also to fend off the growing threat of white-box makers. According to Dell’Oro Group analysts, in 2018 while the top four cloud providers opted for white boxes for their 100Gb deployments, smaller providers and enterprises kept with the brand vendors, which meant ODMs lost ground in the market.