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Kicking open the proprietary door

The SONiC operating system is making waves in the proprietary world of the WAN. What are its chances of success? What ideas does it have up its sleeve next?

Photo by @sigmund from Unsplash.com

By Guy Matthews
Editor of NetReporter

What do we mean when we talk about ‘open’ technology? Usually ‘open’ in this context conjures up an image of a community of like-minded but otherwise independently managed players collaborating and openly sharing ideas. By swapping specifications and other intellectual property between them they hope ultimately to stimulate innovation, reduce complexity and above all disrupt the model whereby a single technology vendor can impose their own end-to-end vision on an unsuspecting world.

Open source software has been with us for a while. If it had an air of radical anti-establishment cool about it 20 years ago, that has long since been replaced by wide acceptance. But in the world of the wide area network, openness has not as yet caught on in a big way. In the kingdom of routing and switching, proprietary is still on the throne. 

This situation looks set for change, in large measure thanks to the rising popularity of Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC), an open source network operating system originally released by Microsoft in 2016 and handed over to the control of the Open Compute Project (OCP) in 2017. For Microsoft, it was originally conceived to create economies and efficiencies in the data centres where its Azure cloud lives. Since 2017, SONiC has popped up in the data centres of other cloud players, notably Chinese hyperscalers like Alibaba and Tencent. SONiC is increasingly in use with Tier 2 cloud operators too, as well as certain telcos and cable companies. The SONiC club now numbers upwards of 850 members, including many large enterprise names.

As 2020 dawned, the big challenge facing SONiC was how to move on from the position of being a well-regarded but somewhat fringe operating system to something more mainstream where it could pose a real threat to the vested interests of the proprietary world.

Independent analyst firm IDC clearly sees a big future for SONiC in the sphere of corporate connectivity, saying that it has the potential to become the ‘Linux of networking’. Brad Casemore, IDC’s Research Vice President, Datacenter Networks, says that SONiC has already achieved the status of leading open source standard bearer for network disaggregation, as well as the modular decoupling and composability of individual software functions. He says that while right now its natural habitat is in Ethernet switches in hyperscale data centres, it looks well set to extend to data centre leaf-spine networks, converged networks and WANs. He expects it to be featuring in 5G and telco-cloud edge environments in the coming years.

“SONiC is not a commercial product per se, because it’s open,” he points out. “But if you are a vendor, you can build a lot of value around it. That’s where Dell has gone, for example, and other vendors too. Telcos and cable MSOs are supporting it in their way too, and I’d expect to see continued adoption there.”

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So why did openness take this long to get to networking? “Sometimes the WAN looks like the last mainframe, with its own interfaces and its own hardware,” reflects Casemore. “Now networking is driven by the hyperscalers and the realisation is dawning that there’s another world out there and it makes a lot of sense. It’s long overdue – but it is happening.”

Dave Maltz, Distinguished Engineer, leader of Microsoft Azure’s Physical Network team and in charge of its SONiC developments, is also excited by what he sees coming next.

“The pandemic put a bit a crimp in everybody’s plans,” he admits. “But we are continuing to see really good adoption across the large cloud companies. In the enterprise space, we are still a bit more in a holding pattern than I would have hoped, but we’re making good progress. Many of the enterprise names already mentioned in connection with SONiC are continuing with their pilots. Interest remains high, and what I think we’ll see next year is more action to match the interest. Critical mass is already there among hyperscalers, and I think it’s building in the enterprise too.” 

Maltz thinks that 2021 will see more action in areas like SONiC at the edge: “We’re starting to see some early deployments,” he says. “At Microsoft we’re working to bring flexible computing closer to the edge, in conjunction with partners, and SONiC is part of that.” 

Maltz also says he is seeing SONiC make progress in the world of Kubernetes: “I’d expect to see wide usage there soon,” he predicts. “As for future developments, we’re encouraging people to sign up to the working groups and see what’s coming up. People can contribute as advocates or join the testing effort as part of making it real.” 

Kevin Deierling, Senior Vice President at NVIDIA, also thinks good things lie just ahead for the platform: “Today SONiC has a relatively narrow set of capabilities which are very well aligned with the use cases that we’re already seen, primarily in Microsoft Azure and other clouds,” he says. “The beauty of an open platform is that you can develop it and add new features, and we believe that will happen. It is important for that reason that it remains open, and never gets locked to a single vendor. At NVIDIA, we are embracing open networking completely.”

It could be argued that SONiC’s most defining moment of 2020 came with the announcement in May by Dell of Enterprise SONiC Distribution, taking the next step in that vendor’s participation which extends back to the early stages of the system’s design and development. By adding more features and tweaking the design of SONiC to make it more enterprise friendly, Dell appears to have positioned it perfectly for the next stage of its evolution.

Ihab Tarazi is the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President at Dell Technologies Networking and Solutions. He sees the move as the culmination of a long process: “We have been investing in SONiC for many years now – over four years in fact,” he says. “We were working jointly on it with Microsoft from the beginning. The idea was to define a new architecture that is modular, meaning you don’t have to use all of it, but just pieces if you want. No other operating system for networks is like this. The second important this was to be cloud-native, designed specifically for cloud applications and the cloud user. It had to be open for the developer to use whatever tools they wanted and to make any changes they needed to. A typical OS would have the entire stack fully integrated. With SONiC we disaggregated all of that. Every customer or partner or whatever can customise their own management layer and telemetry and add whatever fabrics they need.”

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Tarazi admits that it was always going to take a while for the networking industry to absorb this kind of sharp left turn: “But now we’re in a position where SONiC has over 800 participants,” he says. “This ranges from many different vendors, as well as telcos, enterprises, big clouds. Everybody is contributing significantly. At Dell we did our own version of SONiC, adding in all the interfaces that managers are used to – CLIs, and APIs. We validated them all to see that the function works and we put support behind it.”

He believes that SONiC now has the enterprise WAN firmly in its sights, and not just the big multinationals: “We’re already seeing interest among smaller and medium enterprises,” he points out. “In fact the people we’re talking to are in the main medium-sized. We’ve got about 20 testing it right now. We’re also talking to many large telcos who want to deploy SONiC. I’d say of the 10 biggest telcos in the world, five or six are working with on on SONiC. You can already say with confidence that within the next year or two SONiC will become the Linux operating system for networks. 

Like Microsoft’s Maltz, he expects activity this year with SONiC at the edge, involving Smart NICs: “We’re working with at least five vendors on the next generation of Smart NICs,” he says. “That will be big news for the edge, because these things will act as a network switch inside servers and we’re putting SONiC on all of them. This will expand the ecosystem massively because the use cases that Smart NICs will deliver cover everything from edge to wireless to 5G to virtual switches to storage disaggregation. I’d also expect more protocols and capabilities over the next 12 months, for example with massive core switches. Today, these are proprietary. SONiC is already big in the centre of the network, next is the edge and the core. SONiC end to end will simplify things tremendously for people.” 

But he sees open networks having to run alongside proprietary ones for a long time yet: “Networking is a very hard thing to change, unlike servers,” he points out. “And let’s not forget there are some things that proprietary solutions work well for.” 

Mansour Karam, VP Products, Juniper(previously Founder & President, Apstra, recently acquired by Juniper). He is another big SONiC backer and collaborator. The time for open networks is finally here, he believes.

“We’ve been hearing about open networks for many years now,” says Karam. “The first time I was involved with the idea was a decade ago with the first OCP gathering. It’s been a promise for a long time. People expected it to take over, but that hasn’t happened yet. The big change has come over the past year with SONiC, after Microsoft invested in it to help scale their Azure cloud. They did a lot of the heavy lifting and got others involved. The last year has seen a big uplift. Manageability and capability have improved to make it a viable choice not just for cloud providers but also for the enterprise. It’s exciting times for open networking.”

Karam says Apstra has been making a big effort to take SONiC to market and make a solution that’s viable for the enterprise: “We just got our first purchase order for that, which is pretty amazing and no doubt the first of many to come given the traction we’re seeing in the market,” he enthuses. “The good news is that with SONiC they can have what they want. They all care about different things. For some it’s about low latency, for others it’s about the lowest possible cost. You choose your hardware and run SONiC on top. Separation gives you a lot of flexibility to build best of breed data centre solutions.” 

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Karam sees the roadmap for SONiC as exciting, but admits there’s a lot that still need to be done to further existing efforts: “It needs to support more and more capabilities that are relevant to the enterprise,” he concludes. “We want to see more and more vendors embrace it. The road ahead is clear but very busy.”  

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