Friday, January 31, 2014

On networking and political systems

I don't really know why I decided to write tonight. There is plenty of better stuff to do than this. Maybe it is because I am in a bad mood because I got my bicycle stolen today (and it's the second in 12 months …). Or maybe because I haven't posted anything in a long time. Whatever the reason, and for whoever cares to spend time reading, here it goes …

A couple of weeks ago I read the blog post on "Democratising Capacity (or how to interpret Cisco math)", by JR Rivers CEO of Cumulus Networks (and also an ex-Cisco employee). I recommend reading it. 

It provides a critic on a claim that Cisco made about being capable to provide more affordable network solutions than bare-metal offerings (here). His analysis concludes that this isn't true, and criticises the lack of transparency on pricing of Cisco, and the closeness of the system (since you have to buy the optics and even the cables from Cisco - something which isn't accurate, by the way). 

I know that the current buzz in the industry is all about "open" and "dis-aggregated", and is all cool and well. And that all that is evil in networking industry is to blame on Cisco (as if they had been the only vendor in the industry for the last 20 years or more).  I also know that white-box switches with Linux-based operating systems have been selling for years before (without being cool, and without being very successful until now). The code quality and feature set of those white-boxes switches isn't particularly great. 

Cumulus Linux adds a change to that. I think ONIE is interesting, and bare-metal switches supporting it, together with Cumulus Linux will one day make a more competitive offering than white-box switches have been in the past, if Cumulus Networks proves to be capable of delivering a good and rich operating system and quality support. 

And this is a good thing. Competition is good. Period.

But there are a few things on that post that I think are questionable, and I will humbly question them.

Let's begin:  "The attributes of transparency, choice, and degrees of freedom, not price, are driving all of the mega-scale customers to bare-metal networking solutions"

Of course I can't speak for what the mega-scale DC operators are doing and why, but what I have been reading on this topic and from the coverage of the OCP Summit this week, everything points to price as the main motivator for all of those that make the move (example on Facebook just this week). 

I also don't understand the critic on lack of transparency and choice. Certainly on freedom of choice, IT organisations can choose from many hardware vendors. Now, and last year and for the last 20 years (and more).  Granted, they can't decide to source the hardware from HP and run NX-OS on it, or to buy from Cisco and run JunOS, or whatever. Nor I think many customers would want that either. In any case, choices, … there's always been plenty. 

On transparency ... I think here the critic is mainly about pricing transparency. The Cisco list price is clearly available (and JR Rivers has access to it, as he quotes it). Cisco standard discounts and partner programs are available as well. Are there special discounts for large volume deals? Sure. Like in every industry. Every vendor does it. 

In fact, Cumulus Networks does it too. JR is guilty of what he criticises (if I got the critic right): the list price for a certain Cumulus Linux SKU is $699/switch/year, but thanks to an annual cap on volume can be as low as $150/switch/year. Is this valid for every customer? what is the level of volume required to get to this figure? Is it 10,000 licenses per year? what is the number I pay if I say 7,000 licenses per year?… It depends, I am sure. It is a negotiation.
How is this different from Cisco, or any other vendor, giving an special discount to a customer on a volume order? 

Further, the  list price he quotes for the AS5610-52X from Edge-core Networks is actually lower than the retail price you can find on line.  The actual model on Edge-core Website is the AS5600-52X (which is offered as a white-box or in bare-metal option supporting cumulus). I googled "AS5600-52X price" and I got here:

  • $5,999 ( )
  • $5,999 (
There are more links but they either show higher pricing (with slightly different SKUs) or show no pricing.  I did not do an exhaustive search. Of course, JR cannot answer for the price transparency of another vendor (and he does say he encourages them to be transparent).

Besides, this is anecdotic. I am sure that JR is well aware of what is the actual list price, and I am sure he is bloody right. What I simply try to illustrate is that pricing transparency … is missing on the bare-metal model as of yet, but not so on established vendors. 

Freedom of choice. Well. Freedom to choose … Cumulus Linux. Because at the moment, if you are a customer that wants to buy the AS5610-52X from Edge-core in bare metal option, you can only run Cumulus Linux on it. Again, maybe in the future you will also be able to run another OS. Not today.

There is also another angle. And this is the most important oneWe are not comparing apples to apples. And this is key. I could mention silly minor details like the fact that the Nexus 3000 from Cisco has double the DRAM and a more powerful CPU than the AS5600-52X. Or that it is also more energy efficient (even if it has double the DRAM capacity and more powerful CPU, consumes less power). But it is at the OS level that there are more differences. 

JR says a "normal" customer needs to buy the Enterprise LAN software license (N3K-LAN1K9). I don't know what "normal" means in this context. Most customers use this product for L2 server access, therefore not requiring that license. Some customers implement L3 networks end to end, again not requiring that license since on the base license OSPFv2 is included (for up to 256 routes). You need the license if you use a larger OSPF routing table (hardly required in an access situation), or if you need BGP or VRF.

However there are many things that you get on the Cisco base license that you do NOT get yet on Cumulus Linux. To begin with, vPC, to enable servers to use LACP channels to redundant switches for instance. Or L3 multicast routing (on the Cumulus Linux data sheet there is no mention of PIM support, since it is not part of Quagga I guess it is just not there at all). I could make this list very long, but suffice with that. JR comparison should start removing those $8,000 from the Cisco count ...

It is also not apples to apples to compare the support from Cumulus Networks and the support from Cisco. I think this is so obvious today that requires no further explanation. I can tell Nike that I will do publicity for way less than Ussain Bolt does, but I don't believe they will think that I can run nearly as fast as he does.

And … there is one final detail that is not clear to me yet. JR mentions the  AS5610-52X List is $4,200. The Cumulus Linux License & Support is $150 (yearly).  But … what about the HARDWARE support. I mean hardware replacement. The Cisco Smartnet also includes advanced hardware replacement, with Next Business Day Delivery (which Cisco honours on a global basis). 

Does this mean that the $150/switch/year on that calculation include advanced hardware replacement for RMAing a defective unit of the Edge-core switch on a global basis? … Important detail.

Finally ... price isn't really the point that matters most, for most people. It is about value. In my experience, (most) IT organisations care that their network works well. Therefore, what they need is objective information and facts to make an educated decision about what is best for them in this sense. 

Religion and political ideals about democratising I-don't-know-what belong somewhere else, not in technical-decision making. 

No comments:

Post a Comment