Most of us in the networking community are aware of a groundswell of change coming in the networking industry. Vendors struggle to hang on to market share. The cloud is shifting workloads from our datacenters to cloud providers. The community is talking about software-defined and intent-based solutions while many of our cli-slinging colleagues are blissfully unaware of the technological tsunami building off the shores of our enterprise networks.
Underneath all the buzzwords exists a fundamental concept that needs to disrupt our industry.
The best way to describe network disaggregation is to travel back in time 20 years and look at the server/compute space. Back in the day, applications ran on a monolithic stack. Consider the AS 400. IBM would provided the hardware, software, application, and support for the entire system. Customers bought the entire stack, expecting a turn-key solution.
Over time, companies like Microsoft began to sell a desktop operating system which ran on Intel-based hardware provided by any number of hardware vendors. Over time, the industry realized we could do that same thing with servers. Companies began to buy server hardware from one vendor, an operating system from another vendor, and an application from yet another vendor. Microsoft, in part, propelled a disaggregation movement which depleted the monolithic AS 400 stack. Disaggregating operating systems from server hardware plowed the ground for virtualization which spawned a new industry and enabled huge reliability and productivity gains.
Unfortunately, the network world did not follow the same path. In large part, enterprises still buy their networks as a monolith. They purchase networking hardware, software, and applications from a vendor like Cisco and expect that vendor to support the entire stack. As problems arise, customers have looked to vendors to solve problems with a new monolith, forcing a forklift of the old one.
Finally, a ground swell of change is beginning. Companies like Cumulus Networks, Pluribus Networks, IP Infusion and others are building network operating systems that run on “whitebox” switches. Hardware vendors like Dell, Edgecore, and HP are building switches that run these operating systems.
The fundamental missing piece (Hint: It’s not technology)
The biggest challenge to move to a disaggregated world is not technology, it’s the people who support the technology. Instead of understanding how to implement the newest vendor products, network architects and engineers need to understand the functionality of their networks. They need to understand what networking protocols do and what their organizations need. They need to have a passion for making their networks more efficient, more flexible, and more in line with business needs.
In addition, a vendor ecosystem needs to grow to support disaggregated network technology. Enterprises will need help moving to a disaggregated network infrastructure. They will need reliable partners to lean on to architect and design their solutions and to provide support as problems arise.
For the eager engineer
What can you do if you’re interested in learning more about disaggregation? First, download a copy of a network operating system and fire it up in your favorite emulator (GNS 3 or EVE-NG). Second, begin to talk to your colleagues about disaggregation. Third, begin to build your own justification for why disaggregation is a good idea. Fourth, get more involved in the community!
Network disaggregation is an emerging technology, but it’s not vaporware. Companies with high incentive to cut costs and who have strong engineering talent are implementing disaggregated solutions today. As leading edge companies prove out disaggregated solutions, more enterprises will implement. It may take a few years, but disaggregation is coming to a network near you.