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Dell Enterprise Sonic Evaluation

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Background

For many years Wikimedia have used Juniper equipment for all networking requirements (currently edge/WAN routers, datacenter switches, management firewalls). While we are broadly happy with Juniper it is also imperative to assess alternatives, and ensure the foundation is getting value for money.

Cost

Recent years have seen the cost of datacenter switches in particular increasing. This has partially been driven by a gradual move from 1G to faster connections to end-hosts, with the newer equipment supporting 10G+ speeds being pricier. But also there have been increased costs for software feature licenses which in the part were part of the 'base' system, pushing up overall costs. The supply-chain / chip shortage problems that we've seen from 2020 onwards have only accelerated this trend.

Open Source

JunOS, Juniper's operating system, stands out in the foundation as one of the largest closed-source / proprietary software systems we use. In many respects this is standard for network devices. These typically use custom ASICs for packet forwarding, and are not based on the largely open x86/amd64 architecture which server operating systems target. The specialized and proprietary nature of such hardware has resulted in vendors typically offering "vertically integrated" software/hardware stacks since the dawn of the industry.

In more recent years there has been some movement away from this, however. Driven initially by the large web-scalers, disaggregated or white box switching has risen to prominence. In this model the switching hardware is provided by one company, and the operating-system is sourced elsewhere (much like one buys a Dell server and runs Debian or Windows on it). Such an approach offers many advantages, such as being able to change vendors but keep the same operating system. Or change the OS in use on existing hardware. "White box" switch hardware is typically available for a substantially lower cost than brand-name alternatives. There can be drawbacks, however, such as not having a "one stop shop" for support.

Another caveat is that a small number of ASIC vendors, notably Broadcom, have the switching market carved up. These vendors often gate access to their designs and SDKs, limiting the scope for independent parties to create software for them. In one famous case Broadcom ceased licensing its SDK to Cumulus Networks, after they were acquired by rival hardware manufacturer nVidia. This left some customers forced to choose another hardware supplier or move to another OS when they had to upgrade.

Nevertheless the space has opened up and there are now several "white box" NOS's available, even if the space is unlikely to ever be as open as that for server hardware. Options include commercial offerings such as PicOS, ArcOS and OcNOS, as well as open-source projects such as DANOS and OpenSwitch. Of the open-source options SONiC, initially released by Microsoft and now with contributions from many others, has become a clear leader in the space.

Dell Enterprise SONiC

Of the various open-source options SONiC is one of the most popular, with significant industry support. As such it makes good sense

Test Criteria

Test Results

Conclusions

Pros

Cons

Costs

Verdict