For years, legacy technology vendor Cisco has held on to the top market position for ethernet switches, essential hardware that shuttles information into, out of, and around data centers. But now there’s reason to wonder how long Cisco will stay at the top of the heap.
Cumulus Networks, a startup that has created a Linux operating system for switches, is announcing today that it’s working with Dell to sell two switch models that ship with Cumulus’ flavor of Linux. It’s not the first time a hardware vendor has partnered with Cumulus like this, but it is the first time Cumulus will be able to get its operating system loaded on switches from a big-name IT vendor that lots of enterprises buy from.
That might sound like a small step forward for the companies involved, but actually the deal’s impact can span much farther than the vendor scene. Data center operators — such as a public-cloud provider, for example — have a better shot at spending far less money on networking equipment. Instead of being forced to buy very expensive and proprietary hardware-and-software combinations from Cisco or another staid vendor, they can save money by choosing less expensive, more stripped down switches with Cumulus’ operating system.
And they can run this operating system across switches from many different hardware manufacturers, so they can standardize and simplify their operations. They can build applications that can run across all of their switches.
In this case, they can now opt for switches from Dell, which can provide commercial support that many companies have come to trust. Previously you could buy Cumulus Linux-packed switches from Quanta, Accton, and Celestica.
Dell’s Wyse thin-client business division plans to use the Dell switches armed with Cumulus. So does web hosting company DreamHost.
And already Cumulus’ operating system is the foundation for 100 percent of the products of a company with a “very, very, very large web presence,” JR Rivers, cofounder and chief executive of Cumulus, told VentureBeat, although he was not permitted to identify the company by name.
Perhaps it’s the biggest public cloud out there, Amazon Web Services (AWS), given that AWS distinguished engineer James Hamilton has come out in strong support of Cumulus. Or perhaps it’s Google, where Rivers once worked. But even if Amazon or Google don’t pay Cumulus big money, the startup’s offering still packs appeal. And it’s the kind of innovation that could challenge Cisco’s lock on the market, or at least lower Cisco’s prices — and collapse its profit margins — to stay competitive with vendors like Dell.
Meanwhile, the deal positions Dell to throw a big hardware vendor off kilter. That’d be a cool role for a company that’s flip-flopped on its cloud strategy and reportedly looked to bolster its server business.
And of course, having Dell on board lends Cumulus more credibility, not to mention its best sales channel thus far. Dell is hardly a big switch seller — it brought in about $111 million in revenue for ethernet switches in the third quarter of 2013, compared with Cisco’s $3.54 billion, according to IDC figures — but if Cisco isn’t careful, it could lose its edge.
Cumulus, based in Mountain View, Calif., recently disclosed on Crunchbase a $36 million round of venture funding, Rivers said. The company started in 2010.