June 9, 2014

Arista Poised for Ethernet Expansion

Nicole Hemsoth

In the wake of the Arista Networks IPO news on Friday, there has been a great deal of conversation about what the future of software-defined networking will be going forward, not just for its obvious role in hyperscale datacenters, but in other IT segments as well, including HPC.

To be clear, other than having a heavier warchest to throw at new Ethernet efforts, Arista’s role in HPC will remain small, although for some workloads in oil and gas and financial services (especially where Infiniband has been foregone in the past due to a lack of latency and bandwidth sensitivity) it will remain a top choice. With its recent IPO news, Arista Networks is valued at around $2.75 billion. Their IPO effort generated just $226 million with 5.25 million shares they priced at $43, which was above expectations. At current reporting, the stock is trading at just a tick above $55 per share, down a bit from a steady hold at $58 on Friday afternoon. They’ve already been seeing sustained 99% annual growth in net income according to 2013 numbers, up from 87% the previous year, but again, much of this is in the cloud and hyperscale markets.

There are some notable use cases for Arista’s 10GbE approach to be found in supercomputing. For instance, as we reported over in EnterpriseTech earlier this year, BP’s 2.2 petaflop system is outfitted with “Arista 7508E core switches with 40 Gb/sec pipes linking the racks together and 10 Gb/sec Ethernet top-of-rack switches linking the nodes together into the rack.” The San Diego Supercomputer Center uses Arista for the backend of its 5.5 petabyte-capacity cloud storage system with similar deployments at Los Alamos National Lab (in that case via a partnership with Panasas). The real stories about Arista’s success in HPC datacenters, however, is locked behind the guarded walls at high frequency trading shops, among others, where the network’s secret sauce is part of a much larger approach to ultra-fast computing that we’ll never hear about.

For HPC, as a dedicated market inside that much broader IT ecosystem Arista hopes to continue tackling the high end datacenter market, focusing on workloads that aren’t a “no brainer” for investing in Infiniband—as well as for that large base at the bottom end of the Top 500 that is still using GbE. With the promise of cheaper, faster networks that can be reconfigured more flexibly, Arista might find a nice niche in more supercomputing circles, picking up the scraps left behind from both Mellanox’s Infiniband, which holds 41.4% of the list. Intel’s share of the Infiniband pie is not significant either, and further, an additional part of that list, 27%, is still using GbE, but the considerations there (workload requirements, etc.) are too numerous to offer general speculation about possible transitions to a new software-defined network approach. Still, the cost model is attractive at scale.

The company has addressed networks differently from its competitors by foregoing chip design and instead focusing on the software side of reducing latency for its 10GbE switches. They were the first to do a two-tiered “leaf spine” network, which broke the three-tier network trend. With that core layer eliminated, Arista aimed at making it cheaper to build out large systems by allowing users to stack from 10,000 to 100,000 servers on their networks without the expensive core switch factor. Cisco, HP, Juniper and others were quick to emulate this, but Arista was the leader here. Still, they note they only have a 6% share of the overall datacenter market (this includes cloud, “big data” and other enterprise IT) but they expect to grow it further with their one-tier Spline network, where one server is just one simple hop away from another (which is great, although offers a limited fit for HPC). While hitting a scaling wall at 2,000 nodes, is more than enough punch for workloads that aren’t as bandwidth or latency sensitive as others in HPC.

This is certainly big news for the major network players including Cisco in particular, which tends to loom large with an estimated 60-70% of the overall datacenter switching market according to Arista’s opening day documents. They round their share in the broad datacenter market at around 6%, but they’re expecting big growth with their software-defined networking approach that is designed to offer more flexibility and lower costs.

Shareholders are banking on these differentiations—not to mention the cast of characters who have a successful track record in the networking market. Arista, which was founded in 2004, is the brainchild of Sun Microsystems co-founder, Andy Bechtolsheim and Stanford University computer science professor, David Cheriton, the effort won quick backing to the tune of $100 million. The duo previously collaborated on another networking startup, Granite Systems, which Cisco bought in 1996 and really pushed their work into the mainstream network market.

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