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Microsoft open tech promises switch hardware independence

The latest Microsoft open tech takes the brains of data center networking out of proprietary switches and places it in hardware-agnostic software.

Microsoft is moving quickly in developing technology that frees data center operators from the proprietary network operating system that ships with most switching hardware.

Last week, the company released to the Open Compute Project (OCP) a collection of Layer 2 and Layer 3 networking software for building switches. The Microsoft open tech, which runs on Debian Linux, is called Software for Open Networking in the Cloud, or SONiC.

SONiC and other technologies contributed to the OCP are available to members, which include IT and Internet companies, as well as some of the largest enterprise data center operators, such as financial institutions and communication service providers. Microsoft uses SONiC to support the company's Azure cloud and Office 365 services. The Microsoft open tech lets the vendor debug, fix and test applications faster, said Kamala Subramaniam, principal architect of Azure networking at Microsoft. Also, Microsoft can use SONiC in developing features that meet the unique networking needs of the company's data center.

SONiC separates the nuts and bolts of data center networking from the underlying hardware. Divorcing the brains from the switch makes it easier to connect different hardware platforms. The architecture also creates "healthy competition between many [hardware] vendors, driving innovation, speed increases and cost reduction," Subramaniam argued in a company blog.

Microsoft released SONiC as open source software "to solicit feedback and potential enhancements from the Linux networking community," said Brad Casemore, an analyst at IDC.

"Microsoft isn't trying to build a business here; it's just looking to see whether it can learn anything new that would allow it to do a better job of crafting its NOS [network operating system] for networking in its own Azure data centers," Casemore said.

The Microsoft open tech also makes it clear to hardware vendors that the company wants switches without an operating system.

SONiC requirements

Running SONiC requires the underlying hardware to support another OCP technology, called the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI). The specification, developed by Microsoft and other OCP members, is for an abstraction layer that sits between the hardware's application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and the NOS.

With SAI, programmers do not have to write ASIC-specific code to run an NOS on a switch. Instead, they can use Microsoft open tech to communicate with the SAI, which talks to the hardware.

Microsoft has been developing data center networking software for some time. Last September, the company revealed that it had developed a Linux-based NOS, called the Azure Cloud Switch. The purpose of ACS was to integrate the radically different software that now runs across Azure's stable of switches into a cloud-wide network management platform.

Microsoft is one of many tech vendors that have joined OCP, which Facebook founded in 2011. The organization focuses on developing open source hardware and software to make data centers more efficient and less costly. Members include vendors, such as Cisco, Google and Intel, and technology buyers, including AT&T, Goldman Sachs and Fidelity Investments.

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