March 5, 2013

Mellanox Plots Death of Proprietary Ethernet

Richard L. Brandt

Announcements around open technology initiatives are often viewed with a skeptical eye. Interconnect giant Mellanox, however, insists its scheme to create open source software for Ethernet switches goes far beyond lip service. It’s a bold move for a company emerging from the closed doors of InfiniBand into the wide open enterprise Ethernet market – but one that could give the company a huge boost as it moves beyond its traditional role in HPC environments.

The HPC market, especially that for scientific applications, is already accustomed to open source products, and now Mellanox believes that the time is right for others to benefit from the trend. Large enterprises are no longer just using datacenters to run their email, CRM and MRP back-end functions, but are offering cloud-based products to their customers. For large Web 2.0 companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo, their datacenters are their products. Any reduction in costs for datacenter technology increases the profitability of these products.

Aside from cost reductions, Mellanox believes these customers will be able to differentiate themselves by choosing the software that will maximize the performance of their own systems and applications. A good selection of open source Ethernet software will help make that possible.

“They need to adjust their datacenters to their applications,” says vice president of market development Gilad Shainer. “People want the ability to bring their own value and modify things in order to serve their systems better, make their applications better. They will be able to maximize their performance and differentiate themselves.” Otherwise, he notes, they will only be able to compete by lowering their prices – a losing proposition.

Mellanox still has some work to do in order to make this “Generation of Open Ethernet” come alive. First it needs to collect a complete list of software components to replace today’s proprietary offerings. It has already announced that the open Ethernet stack will support some of the open source software products currently on the market: Quagga for Routing Layer 3 and the OpenFlow protocol that enables server-based software to control and manage network functions on Ethernet switches.

That leaves two major components to fill; management and Switching Level 2. “We haven’t found decent (open source) versions yet,” says Shainer, “but there may be some. If not, we’re looking at opening what we have ourselves.”

Mellanox itself will support all the software that becomes part of the open source initiative, but it won’t stop there. Some companies might want to create and provide support for their own versions of the open source software, just as Red Hat does today with its version of Linux. Vendor support is valuable, and Mellanox will embrace those products as well. (In fact, it seems likely that Mellanox will also take its own approach to the ‘Red Hat strategy’).


Also, if some customers want to keep proprietary components they like, Mellanox will support those in its products if they are available. It already supports the main commercial controllers.

Mellanox will, however, keep its hardware proprietary. “We’re going to provide the best technology from our perspective on the switches, silicon and boxes,” says Shainer. “But everything above that will be open.” After all, the company has to differentiate itself somehow.

Why is Mellanox making this move now? In the past year or so, the company watched the rise of software-defined networks (SDN) and OpenFlow and decided it was time to make a serious push into open Ethernet software. That will allow for more software innovation and keep customers from being stuck on one vendor’s hardware simply because they’re locked into that vendor’s proprietary software as well. The point is not lost that this approach might also help Mellanox wrench market share from entrenched vendors.

“We know that some of the leading vendors are not going to like this,” says Shainer. “They prefer everything to be locked. They hate open systems. That’s fine, but we believe it’s the wrong way to go.”

Mellanox has already had a recent uptick in success in the Ethernet market, which it entered about five years ago. It announced last week that market research firm Crehan Research calculates that Mellanox has now captured a 19 percent share of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet market, a big boost in the last year.

Moreover, Mellanox says it has solidly confirmed the need. Before making its plans known, Mellanox sought a reality check from enterprise and Web 2.0 companies. “We got very good feedback,” says Shainer. “We got complete endorsement for what we were doing. There is a demand to start changing and modifying (Ethernet software) and to gain control.”

How long will it take for this approach to catch on? Shainer says he has no idea. But certainly the large Web 2.0 companies and large enterprises will be the first to move, because they have the capability to create their own software. (We would note that Google and Facebook are adept at that sort of thing.) Smaller companies will follow, perhaps much later. He expects the early adopters to announce their intent within months, not years.

In fact, Shainer hints that there may be some partners announced soon. “Moving along, some of the supporters are going to become more public,” he says. “I cannot mention names.”

Perhaps there are couple hints as to when Mellanox will trot out its first supporters. Mellanox CEO Eyal Waldman will be making a presentation titled “Welcome to the Generation of Open Ethernet” at the Ethernet Technoloy Summit in San Jose the first week of April. In May, the company will be making an Open Switch demonstration at Interop Las Vegas. Perhaps after these events we’ll get an idea of whether this initiative has wings.

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