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Linux Foundation control helps ready SONiC for enterprise

Under the Linux Foundation, SONiC could get enterprise features that make the open source network operating system more useful within campus and edge environments.

Microsoft's decision to hand SONiC management to the Linux Foundation will likely spur feature development and industry support that could lead to more enterprise use of the open source network operating system, experts said.

Microsoft handed the NOS to the foundation last week, taking a significant step toward making the technology more useful within enterprise data centers and campuses, analysts said. Microsoft developed SONiC as a critical networking component within its Azure public cloud.

Microsoft released SONiC, or Software for Open Networking in the Cloud, in 2016 as a microservices-based NOS that provides a modular, containerized approach to networking. The architecture lets users implement only the network services that they need.

Under the Linux Foundation, critical problems preventing more widespread adoption of the well-regarded but somewhat fringe technology could begin to fade, according to experts. They include a lack of management tools, a steep learning curve to implement the technology and weak support from many switch vendors.

Dell is among a handful of enterprise hardware manufacturers trying to make SONiC more mainstream.  Concurrent with the Linux Foundation's acquisition of SONiC, the company introduced Enterprise SONiC Distribution 4.0, a more commercialized and consumable package available next week. In June, Dell plans to release a validated hardware design for retail edge locations.

"What we're trying to do is simplify [the use of SONiC]," said Gil Shneorson, senior vice president of Dell's edge portfolio.

Other vendors with more networking market share, such as Cisco, Juniper and Arista, support SONiC to varying degrees but have yet to introduce their versions of the NOS. That could change if ownership by the Linux Foundation increases enterprise demand.

"If SONiC has legs and wins the hearts, minds and wallets of enterprises, then I think you'll see other vendors recalibrate their strategies accordingly," IDC analyst Brad Casemore said.

Also, the Linux Foundation could drive the development of a broader range of SONiC features, IDC analyst Dave McCarthy said.

"Being part of the Linux Foundation might actually help get some additional extensions added, whether that's things like improving remote management capabilities [or] more efficient use of bandwidth for updates," he said.

The Linux Foundation has a history of investing in projects for the edge, so in that environment, SONiC could be useful for managing a wide range of vertical-specific hardware, McCarthy said.

"One of the main value propositions of SONiC is that you could have hardware from multiple vendors, and as long as they all support SONiC, you can manage it as a single unit," he said. "As somebody who used to manage networking infrastructure earlier in my career, that's a dream."

Technical capabilities aside, the Linux Foundation's backing will lend credence to the OS and encourage buy-in across the open source community. Prospective users told Casemore that they would be more comfortable using SONiC under the Linux Foundation.

"[SONiC proponents] can take advantage of the greater profile the Linux Foundation gives it," Casemore said. Backing from the group means the IT community can trust that SONiC has staying power.

"This is going to equip it for a much greater potential utility in enterprise environments, not just the enterprise data center but campus, branch [and] other edge environments, potentially IoT," he said.

Overall, IDC is bullish on SONiC. The analyst firm predicts that in 2025, SONIC-based data center switch revenue will be $2.5 billion, or 14.4% of the total.

While cloud providers account for roughly 90% of today's spending, tier 2 and 3 B2C and B2B cloud services are increasingly adopting SONiC, Casemore said.

"If you look at the features, the additions and enhancements, the protocol suite that Dell is now supporting… [SONiC] certainly addresses a broader range of use cases than it did a couple of years ago," Casemore said.

Madelaine Millar is a news writer covering network technology at TechTarget. She has previously written about science and technology for MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, as well as covering community news for Boston Globe Media.

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