Dell is taking the white box switching model a step further by disaggregating the switch’s software itself, opening the possibility of one operating system that could influence compute and storage in addition to networking.
If it works, Operating System 10 (OS10), being launched today, could become a convergence play for Dell, fusing compute, storage, and networking into one platform. In that scenario, one Linux application could act on all three areas at once. It would be a more fluid take on the idea of converged infrastructure, providing one environment and bringing Dell closer to the DevOps idea of infrastructure-as-code.
“OS10 was built with the mindset of the network today but also as a platform for servers and storage in the future,” says Tom Burns, vice president of Dell Networking and Enterprise Infrastructure.
But the baby steps come first: For now, OS10 is sold only in the networking milieu, and it will eventually be the basis for all of Dell’s switch offerings, both in the campus and the data center.
Opening Up the OS
Other network operating systems, such as Cisco‘s IOS, Juniper‘s Junos, Arista‘s EOS, and Dell’s own OS9, are integrated packages. They come with the Layers 2 and 3 stacks that make networking go, and they also come with hundreds of features that customers might not ever use, Burns says.
By contrast, OS10 is modular. Its base configuration, which will be available free on Dell switches, consists only of the unmodified Linux operating system (the Debian distribution, with other options to come later) and the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) that lets the OS talk to the switching chip.
Of course, the switch needs the rest of its software in order to run — Layer 2-3 stacks are essential, for instance. Sticking to the philosophy of open networking, Dell doesn’t dictate where that other software has to come from. You could license all that software from Dell, of course. Another option is to buy from the partners whose software is resold by Dell — namely, Big Switch Networks, Cumulus Networks, or IP Infusion. In either case, Dell would provide the software in prepackaged forms called OS10 Application Modules.
Or, you could take full advantage of OS10’s purported openness by fleshing out the rest of the switch software yourself, using stacks of your choice. That’s what Joyent has done. The cloud provider has been an early customer of OS10 and is augmenting it with open source Quagga BGP routing code.
Beta versions of OS10 Base Module will be available on some switches this quarter, with general availability due before the end of June. Premium packages, which include software from Dell or its partners, will be available in beta starting in the June quarter and should reach general availability by the end of the year.
Beyond Layer 2-3
The “platform” aspect of OS10 will really come into play if customers decide to look beyond plain old switching and routing.
For starters, Dell is talking with Layer 4-7 vendors “about how to virtualize their infrastructure to use the switching platform and the compute platform combined,” Burns says. The result would be that OS10 could be an NFV host, running virtualized applications such as load balancers and WAN optimizers.
Dell is also beta-testing the interaction of OS10 with cloud orchestration systems, Burns says.
Finally there’s the possibility of relating OS10 to storage and compute platforms. This idea is still in its early stages, and Dell hasn’t determined what form it might take. A platform like Dell’s PowerEdge FX2, which comprises modular blocks of compute and storage, could conceivably be run on OS10, for example. At the very least, “we envision OS10 helping us in driving our converged strategy,” says Burns.
‘We Can’t Do This the Same Way’
OS10 started modestly. Gavin Cato, with previous experience at IBM and Nortel, had been recruited out of Extreme Networks to be Dell’s vice president of development engineering, to lead an effort to converge the company’s campus and data center portfolios.
“As we were doing the modeling, we realized: We can’t do this the same way as before,” Cato says. The portfolios were too different; Dell would need to create abstractions to let both types of switches relate to the same operating system. As those abstractions took shape, it became clear that OS10 could anchor a platform that could extend beyond networking.
OS10 did accomplish the task of converging Dell’s switch portfolio, by the way. Dell’s campus switches run on the company’s OS6, while data center switches run on OS9. The plan is to migrate both to OS10 eventually; one key step will be to bring OS10’s functionality up to par with OS9’s. Dell is targeting the end of 2016 to accomplish that, Burns says.
The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) boot loader has become pervasive across all Dell switches during the past two years, which means it should be easy to upgrade the switches to OS10, according to Burns.