This is the first in a series of stories about the white box ecosystem that we’ll be running this week. Future installments will look at the business model and the chip ecosystem. To start with, we present a small profile on two of the better-known Silicon Valley software startups trying to make it all happen.
White-box switches aren’t only about low cost. But when you see the Cumulus Networks headquarters, “low-cost” definitely comes to mind.
Its Mountain View location is desirable enough (and not that cheap — Google considered building apartments nearby, rumor has it). It’s just that it’s on the other side of the tracks — “tracks” in this case meaning Highway 85, which separates this neighborhood from the latte and sushi comforts of downtown. This is where the revolution supposedly begins: down ignored streets fronted by old warehouses.
Cumulus is in the process of moving into two buildings near its current spot. You still wouldn’t call the area a tech hub yet, though.
“This guy here has got a crazy business,” says Cumulus CEO J.R. Rivers, walking past an abandoned-looking building next to Cumulus’ new quality-assurance labs. “He mostly lives in Mexico, and he sells helicopter supplies out of there. This real estate — it’s not the cheapest real estate in the world, but it’s worth the amount of money.” The parking lot is cleaned up and has new sidewalks now, but in September, as Cumulus started moving in, the pavement was still cracked and strewn with weeds.
The current headquarters are cleaner but practically hidden. It’s a former warehouse where long cafeteria-style tables are loaded with computers, monitors, and programming books, but from the outside, it looks like a company that would sell things like, well, helicopter parts.
Maybe that’s the right look for startups like Cumulus and Pica8. They consider themselves rebel software companies, not switch companies, with low overhead being one of their strongest weapons against the networking industry. Mainly against Cisco.
Cisco has ruled the switch market for well more than a decade, fending off competitors from every direction. A couple of years ago, it was Huawei and the low-cost Asian threat. Now, the buzz is more around software-defined networking (SDN) and high-speed switches based on off-the-shelf chips and the Linux operating system.
Cisco CEO John Chambers likes to point out that his company keeps fending off these doomsday scenarios. Bare-metal switching is different, Rivers contends.
“Our burn rate’s low enough that at $20 million a year, even at our fastest hiring pace we can conceive of, we can be insanely profitable. I hear John talking, but he’s never faced a competitor with that kind of operating model before,” Rivers says.
Is Cisco the Next Tandem?
For a software company, Pica8 ships a lot of hardware. Stacks of original design manufacturer (ODM) switches — white boxes — fill what’s essentially a studio apartment of an office, spilling out of the “global shipping department,” as CEO James Liao calls it, and into the coders’ lair.
Customers still want one company to provide the hardware and software, so while they like idea of a Linux-based switch built from off-the-shelf hardware, they don’t want to have to go procure that hardware and install the software, Liao says.
Like Cumulus, Pica8 chose a relatively low-rent neighborhood — the lonely frontage road that hugs U.S. Highway 101. The office houses 13 employees, with 30 more working in Beijing. It’s not far from Stanford University, though you wouldn’t know it by staring out the window.
Liao previously worked at Quanta, the well-known Taiwanese ODM, but his real inspiration for Pica8 comes from his time at Tandem. It’s common for people to relate SDN, network virtualization, or white-box switching to the way PCs ate the market from under mainframes and minicomputers, but Liao watched it happen firsthand, seeing Tandem fail to respond as PC performance climbed and individual servers grew into powerful clusters.
Something similar is happening in networking, as the chips from the likes of Broadcom and Fulcrum (now owned by Intel) are just as capable as the ASICs developed inside Cisco and Juniper.
Arista recognized this and built its business on using those chips to run its own version of Linux. (So did Cisco; NX-OS is based on Linux.) That was an important step but doesn’t fit the mainframe/PC analogy closely enough, Liao says.
“The problem is that Arista is still trying to build a bigger chassis, trying to build a chassis story instead of making it simpler,” Liao says. “In 2009, I looked at the market and said this is not the right way to go. Only if you make the hardware simpler can you make the software more flexible.”
Pica8’s goal is to bring programmability to the white box. Like Cumulus and Arista, it starts with Linux and adds networking and cloud smarts. Router code was acquired from XORP, a formerly open-source project at U.C. Berkeley that was recently scuttled. Pica8 also created its own virtualization technology, vASIC, because Linux didn’t have virtualization capabilities, Liao says. And it’s all linked to SDN thanks to a relatively long relationship with Stanford’s Clean Slate, the program that eventually spawned OpenFlow and jump-started the SDN movement.
Various Stanford contacts helped Liao, a Stanford graduate, find enough customers to ship $1 million worth of gear from his garage, all before Pica8 landed its $6.6 million in funding. “We’re probably the most capital-efficient company in Silicon Valley. We broke even before we raised funding,” he says.
Like Rivers, Liao believes Cisco’s time at the top of the switching market is coming to an end.
“This market is not going to be dominated by one company any more. It’s going to be segregated horizontally — people who do the chip will do it better than the integrated solution, and people who do the hardware will be doing better at hardware than the guys who do the Cisco chassis. And people who do the Layer 2/Layer 3 software will do better than Cisco’s Layer 2/Layer 3. Being the big company becomes the baggage,” he says.
Opening Up to Open-Source
Cumulus is approaching from a different direction. The vision there is less about SDN and more about coding, about turning an Ethernet switch into something companies are willing to program themselves.
And Cumulus is way into open-source. It’s literally a Linux company, offering a free distribution of the operating system and using the open-source Quagga routing suite and other additions. Like Red Hat, Cumulus expects to make its living off of services and support. Rivers is also interested in the programmability of switches, as Liao is, but he’s got a particular passion for replacing arcane network programming with a Linux model that more people can understand.
“Our whole model is: How do you simplify networking for the common man?” Rivers says. “Go home and log into a Linux server, and then log into a switch that’s connected to it, even Big Switch. It’s jarring.”
Rivers takes the Red Hat parallel seriously, expecting Cumulus to become a leader in a wider community that’s expected to share its discoveries. Cumulus adds its own enhancements as well, such as the OpenStack integration and CFEngine support in Cumulus Linux 2.0, released in October.
The difference is that while Red Hat’s target audience is just about everybody, Cumulus sticks to just the Ethernet switch. That makes Cumulus’ open-source job a little easier.
“The form factors that we’re working with are pretty fixed, where Red Hat has to work with every disk drive and every new disk drive controller and every RAID controller and every Fibre Channel HBA — and all of those pieces eventually need to get folded back in, so they have to test around that,” Rivers says.
Wading through the code on his workstation, he demonstrates assigning tags to send particular traffic to particular VLANs. It’s not rocket science; Cumulus’ point is that these things can be done on Linux without the help of an ASIC.
“It’s for people who don’t want their physical network to be important. It sounds stupid, I know but — it’s people who, for whatever reason, want their network to be very high capacity and don’t want to think about it from an application perspective. They just want dual 10-Gb/s to a server and a 40-Gb/s uplink, and they look at Cisco pricing and go, ‘Aaugh!'”
The lower-price argument has less to do with the cheapness of ODM hardware and more with the classic big-company tropes. Cisco, or even a more agile competitor such as Juniper, could try to support a white-box model, but they’ve got sales forces and ASIC teams to support. Cumulus, on the other hand, was built with the leanness of a white-box ecosystem in mind.
That’s how the argument goes, anyway. Having announced its plans only this summer, Cumulus still has to convince the world its model will work — as does Pica8 and any number of companies counting on an upheaval in the networking industry.
“2014 will be a year of settling. There’s been all this euphoria and chaos around SDN,” Rivers says. “We’re in a situation where it’s all getting tried out.”