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Dell Strikes a Deal With Big Switch

Determined to become a force in open networking, Dell today is announcing a partnership with Big Switch Networks.

Dell will offer Big Switch’s Switch Light virtual-switch software and Big Tap monitoring fabric on the S4810 and S6000 lines of switches. The announcement follows the January deal that has Dell offering Cumulus Networks’ Linux operating system as well.

Dell loves the idea of disaggregating the hardware and software of a networking switch — the exact message preached by the new breed of software companies that includes Cumulus, Pica8, and Big Switch. Those startups provide software to run on generic switches, also called bare-metal switches or white boxes.

That’s where Dell diverges from the plan. Executives want to apply the idea to Dell’s own not-so-generic switches.

“Dell does not believe in bare-metal switching,” says Tom Burns, Dell’s vice president of networking. “The integration and the capabilities between the software and the hardware are still very strategic even in an SDN environment.”

The more powerful part of Dell’s story is that it can offer services, such as assembing the hardware and software and providing the support that many enterprises would need. “Some enterprises are interested in Cumulus or Big Switch, but do not want to deal with ODMs or white boxes, since it brings additional unknowns in the equation,” writes Simon Richard, an analyst with Gartner, in an email to SDNCentral.

Big Switch agrees. The startup has been successful in Japan “because there’s a company at the front end that’s effectively integrating these things,” says CEO Douglas Murray, the company’s CEO. There’s no “common vehicle” for doing that in other markets, he added; Dell could fill that role. (Customers who don’t like Dell for whatever reason could buy Switch Light and Big Tap, and/or the associated support, from Big Switch directly, Burns says.)

Like Cumulus, Big Switch could also benefit from Dell’s general market presence. Big Switch is famous in software-defined networking (SDN) circles but isn’t exactly a giant on the world stage.

It’s tempting to think that a white-box ODM could add services to match Dell, but there’s a barrier: Enterprises buy equipment through resellers, and ODMs aren’t part of that milieu. The VARs “don’t really have any incentive to turn away from their existing suppliers. It’s very risky,” writes Current Analysis analyst Mike Fratto in an email to SDNCentral.

“I think Dell may have a leg up on competing with other network suppliers in niches like education, government, and retail where they have been strong. I think they are way behind in mindshare for the data center and campus enterprise,” Fratto adds.

In amassing these open-networking pieces, Dell wants to offer multiple options for SDN or network virtualization. Those would include controller-based SDN, à la Big Switch; API-based approaches similar to what Cisco is pitching; and a hypervisor-based overlay model, such as VMware‘s NSX.

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