Dell And Pluribus Forge SDN Partnership That Attacks Cisco On Price, Architecture

Dell is throwing another software-defined punch at Cisco, this time with a partnership aimed at the cloud market and service providers, and designed to beat the networking giant on price and architecture.

Round Rock, Texas-based Dell and Pluribus Networks of Palo Alto, Calif., have struck a deal by which Pluribus will port and support its Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux operating system onto Dell's family of open networking switches, including the S6000 and S4048.

"We have built the equivalent of an Android operating system for networking," Kumar Srikantan, president and CEO of Pluribus Networks, told CRN.

[Related: Michael Dell: 'New Way' SDN Opens Door For Dell To Shake Up 'Old Way' Cisco]

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The deal gives Dell an SDN solution in which routing and management of switches are being done by a server at lightning-fast speeds, and it gives Pluribus access to Dell's large pool of end users.

The result is Pluribus and Dell can approach the burgeoning SDN market at a substantial savings compared to Cisco, Srikantan said. Still, the challenge of taking on Cisco, the dominant player in the networking market, is daunting and requires more than just good pricing.

So, along with challenging Cisco's pricing and attacking the huge margins it realizes, Dell and Pluribus have taken aim at Cisco's architecture, arguing that customers are hungry for choice and open solutions.

"We have a comprehensive set of paths for customers to move to SDN," Tom Burns, vice president and general manager of Dell networking and converged infrastructure, told CRN in a recent interview. "We provide choice. (Cisco ACI) is a good solution, but it's based on proprietary software that only runs on Cisco hardware."

"Cisco's market share is still huge, but the last couple of years it's been flat," Burns said. "Customers are asking for alternatives -- they're tired of being locked in. An open environment, choice, is something Cisco is not embracing."

All customers are interested in saving money, Srikantan said, "but to beat Cisco you've got to do more," he said. "You could give away switches for free, and you cannot beat Cisco. You're going to take them on architecturally. Dell understands this. In a box-by-box battle, you will lose to Cisco all day long. You have to move the bar, help partners and provide architecture.

"Cisco is smart. They recognize you can't win a box argument if you can't provide value," Srikantan said. "In that sense, we're very similar to Cisco, but you should be able to do it with open, not with proprietary, hardware and encapsulation schemes. If you can do 80 percent of what [Cisco] ACI promises, why wouldn't the customer take it? Why do you need a custom controller? Why not just use open source software and build it in the fabric. We should empower the entire ecosystem to have the power of ACI," he said.

"Disaggregation, choice, that's the shift in customer sentiment," he said. "The industry is moving where you can't sell servers a-la-carte anymore. Everyone is moving to converged infrastructure, and having a solution play is important. The same thing is becoming important on the networking side.

"We're saying [Layer] Three is commoditized -- the mystery of L3 is gone," Srikantan said. "The problem is the Ethernet market runs at about 60 percent gross margin," Srikantan said. "If a customer is paying on average $100 for a port, $35 is for the hardware, and $65 [is] for what? An enormous number of L2 and L3 protocols. And if I can't figure out how to run networking fast enough, my accounts are running away to Amazon, etc."

"You should be paying no more than $10 for L2-L3," Srikantan said. "Wouldn't you rather use those dollars to make sure the network is more relevant, easier to provision, more secure? L2-L3 is no longer a mystery; spend the money on orchestration. There are 500 things the network can deliver, and the customer should be moving their dollars to those things. You can go to the CIO and say, 'I'm going to give you better visibility into our traffic so we can aid firewall, and we don't have an Anthem [data breach]."

Pluribus has developed what it calls a plug-and-play, controller-free fabric that allows users to move away from managing switches box-by-box. Instead, all switches "look like they belong in the fabric, manage any and all traffic," Srikantan said. "You don't have to log into any one switch."

The Dell partnership gives cloud providers best-in-class hardware switching economics with a scalable, highly available, distributed SDN controller architecture designed for visibility, security and dramatic operational simplification, the company claims.

"If you have 20 racks, we look at all 20 racks as if it's an application platform," Srikantan said. "You can drop any service anywhere, and know how to orchestrate that service, bring it closest to compute without messing with compute, and expose the network's value through APIs. We look at the network as if it was a single server. In one command, we can do what would take 40 or 50 commands" in a legacy Cisco system.

Tom Turkot, vice president of client solutions for Arlington Computer Products, and a Dell, Pluribus and Cisco partner, said the way Pluribus has approached SDN is interesting, and he anticipates other companies will copy its approach.

The Pluribus-Dell partnership leaves Cisco playing catch-up, Turkot said. "I feel Cisco's playing catch-up in this space." The partnership "gives Dell a really interesting solution when they're going up against Cisco. Even if they're selling into a Cisco shop, they can still sell servers, and they can still sell Pluribus. They can say, 'I'm not here to sell you new networking, I'm here to leverage your existing infrastructure with a solution that's going to save you literally millions of dollars and extend the life, and when you do need to reinvest, you'll be buying less than what your current infrastructure is. That's a very powerful argument."

Cisco did not comment before press time.