Your Momma Is So Proprietary
October 20, 2011 10 Comments
Let’s talk about a very sensitive subject for both networking admins and networking vendors: The subject of proprietary technologies.
The word proprietary in most cases has a very negative connotation. Most network designers would prefer that everything be based on open standards, like OSPF and (shudder) Spanning Tree. After all, IP and Ethernet are open standards, and those along with many other open standard technologies, make the Internet and industry what it is today. But at the same time, we can be a bit hypocritical, in that we also tend to want awesome features that are often on the propriety side.
Conversely, most network vendors would love to come up with the Kernel’s Secret Recipe that makes their stuff so awesome, that no sane engineer would dare use anything else. But they also like to say they’re open, in order to allay fears that a customer might have of being “locked in”. So when vendors go after customers, you’ll hear “open” a lot. When vendors go after each other, you hear “proprietary” thrown about as an epithet. And when a vendor is accused of being proprietary, they often lash out into an epic battle of “your momma is so proprietary”.
So last week there was a discussion on Twitter between former Cisco employee and new Dell Force10 employee Brad Hedlund (@bradhedlund), and former Cisco employee and new Juniper employee Chistopher Hoff (@beaker). (By the way, they are both people I admire and respect.)
I believe they were talking about the different approaches their respective companies were taking solve the evolving needs of modern data centers. Juniper’s solution is QFabric, while Dell Force 10 is going the NVGRE/VXLAN/OpenFlow route. Brad cited QFabric as proprietary, and Christopher Hoff countered that Cisco’s FEX is also proprietary. And while true, something about that bothered me a bit.
QFabric and FEX are both proprietary, but the effect of the proprietary is very different. With QFabric, you can build a huge network fabric, without worrying about spanning-tree, and have one control plane for a whole mesh of switches. With FEX, you can plug what looks like a switch into a Nexus 5000 or Nexus 7000, and that switch looks like a line card on the 5000/7000. FEX affects the next hop. QFabric can affect your entire data center.
FEX is pretty limited, and honestly I think it’s fairly inconsequential in terms of its proprietariness. You can use FEX, or just hang another Cisco switch off a 5K/7K, like a Nexus 3000 (with its merchant silicon) or even an Arista or Juniper box. Even if you use FEX, the effect is limited to one switch hop away. How concerned would a designer be about the effect of proprietary FEX? Pretty much it would have little effect.
The effect of QFabric, however, is potentially far more wide ranging.
That’s no moon, that’s a data center fabric
From the Packet Pushers episode (episode 51) on QFabric, Abner Germanow talks about 500 10 Gigabit Ethernet port where QFabric makes sense, which is a pretty large investment. If you figure roughly $2,000 a port, that would make it a $1,000,000 decision. If you order enough FEX/Nexus switches, you can spend that much, but you can go step by step and back out if you want.
With the proprietary versus open debate, it’s quite understandable that Juniper is very sensitive to the word “proprietary”. However, it’s tough to classify QFabric as anything but, as Ivan Pepelnjak says, “completely proprietary“.
Right now there are several open standards, such as TRILL, SPB, OpenFlow, VXLAN, FCoE, NVGRE and others looking to solve many of the same data center problems that QFabric looks to solve. And from the looks of it Juniper has been rather dismissive of some of the open fabric standard technologies, such as the much discussed “Why TRILL Won’t Work For The Data Center” argument (requires registration, fuck you TechTarget). Juniper is also taking a wait-and-see approach to VXLAN.
Even so, I don’t think Juniper should care if people call it proprietary. Yes, it’s proprietary. And yes, the effect of this proprietary-ness is huge compared to Cisco’s FEX because it affects more of the data center. But that’s a good thing.
Right now, because these open standards are mostly brand-spanking new, and no one is bat-shit crazy enough to build a multi-vendor fabric based on these new standards.
So QFabric has the advantage there, since even open standards are likely to be vendor-locked for now. And QFabric is a bit more mature than most of the new standards, in that it’s at least impelemtend and released. (Despite the terrible, and I mean just awful PR move bashing Juniper. Seriously, Cisco, that shit reeks sophomoric desperation. I feel cheep even linking it.)
What we do have to consider, however, is that in time the interoperability and maturity situation will be different, as it is for mature open standards today. It’s very common to have multi-vendor 802.1Q, OSPF, IS-IS, BGP, and spanning-tree deployments, without thinking twice about it. There will likely be a day when whatever new standards we’re dealing with now succeed and evolve to the point where we wouldn’t think twice about building say a TRILL fabric with multiple vendors like we do now with spanning-tree.
So QFabric is proprietary, and is not going to play well with others. That doesn’t discount it as a solution, but it is a serious consideration, more so than something like proprietary FEX. Proprietary has its advantages, and disadvantages, and the effect can be substantial or inconsequential, all factors to consider. I won’t even hazard a guess at this point as to how it’s going to play out, but like a good twitter battle, I’m going to enjoy watching.