Sometimes you just know. Rarely do you meet entrepreneurs whose expertise is so great, vision so clear, and passion so strong that you leave the first meeting knowing you must do whatever it takes to work with them.
This happened to me in April of 2010 when I met JR Rivers and Nolan Leake for the first time at Hobbee’s in Cupertino. Over breakfast we had a mind-bending, 90-minute conversation about the current state and future direction of networking. As we left breakfast that morning and walked to the parking lot, my mind was racing, thinking and planning what I would do next. Little did I know I had absentmindedly walked out of the restaurant without paying our bill (which I only realized half way to Palo Alto.) Fortunately JR and Nolan are mensches; they went back inside, paid the bill, and didn’t hold it against me. Thus began my journey with Cumulus Networks*.
The vision JR and Nolan painted for me that April morning is remarkably consistent with the products they announced today:
- For the first time give customers choice of their preferred hardware vendors and empower ODMs by decoupling the operating system software that is running on the switches from the underlying hardware.
- Move the networking supply chain and consumption model of networking to look more like the server industry.
- Leverage and enhance the rich networking feature set in the Linux operating system and other open source projects instead of building another proprietary operating system.
- Enable customers to take advantage of the tooling and automation they have developed for server automation in the networking domain.
JR had seen first-hand from inside Google and from conversations with the largest web-scale operators that the economic, management, and operational paradigms for networking had to change. As these operators had gone to white box commodity servers and storage, it became clear that the fully burdened cost to network the servers had risen disproportionately. Further, workload placement was being constrained by the network since building networks that were lightly or non-oversubscribed was economically infeasible at scale using traditional methods. While it was clear that Broadcom and Intel were making world-class switching silicon, and the ODM community was manufacturing outstanding hardware, the missing link was a company to pull together the disparate bits of software into a true network operating system and stand up to support customers consuming networking in this new model. Cumulus is this missing link.
The commercial viability of Linux on x86 radically transformed the economics of computing. Most understand this intuitively, but it’s quite shocking when you actually look at the numbers. Back in 2000, proprietary UNIX systems out-shipped Linux on x86 servers by over 5x. Today the situation is completely reversed. Gartner estimates that Linux on x86 will ship 25x more units than proprietary UNIX in 2013. During the same time period the market for x86 servers running Linux grew from $477M to more than $12B while proprietary UNIX shrunk by 70%.
The networking market today is at a similar state as computing was in 2000. Custom hardware running proprietary operating systems dominates the spending and share of ports shipped in the data center.
The Linux revolution in networking could be as disruptive to the status-quo as it was in compute, unleashing new levels of price/performance and management simplicity. Previously when Linux was discussed in a networking context, it was either about using servers as forwarding devices or building a “Linux-based” networking operating system for forwarding silicon. Cumulus Networks is doing neither of these. Using servers for forwarding is appropriate at the edge of the network, but an x86 data path doesn’t achieve the performance or density required at the Top of Rack or in the data center core. Further, Cumulus Linux is not “Linux based,” it is Linux. This simple fact alone radically changes the configuration, monitoring, and management paradigm. Existing tools like Chef from Opscode* that are already used to programmatically manage 100s of thousands of servers at scale with small teams can now be applied to networking. This isn’t just theory, it’s being deployed at joint customers like Dreamhost.
Previously this type of networking innovation was limited to the web-scale giants whose internal teams of highly skilled network architects and engineers built their own solutions. Even advanced customers were left to deal with the same old vendors, forget about what the common enterprise faced. Now, with switches available from multiple ODMs running Cumulus software, these benefits will be unlocked to the broader market. The recent announcements from Facebook and the Open Compute Project around open sourcing reference designs for networking hardware will only help to accelerate the availability and maturity of the white box networking ecosystem.
While the Linux-based networking revolution is just getting started, a number of thought leading customers are already rethinking their network. Dreamhost, Fastly*, and a host of leading players in financial services and e-commerce are all in production today.
The merchant silicon + Linux revolution for networking is real, it’s here, it’s within your reach. Join the revolution!
*Denotes a current or former Battery portfolio company. For a full list of all Battery investments and exits, please click here.