Microsoft’s commitment to open initiatives & the riddle of whitebox networking

On Tuesday Microsoft surprised me by announcing an open switching/networking plan in partnership with Mellanox and as part of the Open Compute initiative.

Wait, what?

Microsoft’s building a switch?

Not quite, but before we get into that, some background on Microsoft’s participation in what I call OpenMania: the cloud & enterprise technology vendor tendency to prefix any standards-ish cooperative work effort with the word Open.

Microsoft’s participating in several OpenMania efforts, but I only really care about these two because they highlight something neat about Microsoft and apply or will soon apply to me, the Converged IT Guy.

Open Compute, or OCP, is the Facebook-led initiative to build agnostic hardware platforms on x86 for the datacenter. I like to think of OCP as a ground-up re-imagining of hardware systems by guys who do software systems.

As part of their participation in OCP, Microsoft is devoting engineering resources and talent into building out specifications, blueprints and full hardware designs for things like this, a 12U converged chassis comprised of storage and compute resources.

ocs
Are those brown Zunes in the blades?

 

Then there’s Open Management Infrastructure (OMI), an initiative of the The Open Group (TOG). Microsoft joined OMI almost three years ago to align & position Windows to share common management frameworks across disparate hardware & software systems.

That’s a lot of words with little meaning, so let me break it down for the Windows guys and gals reading this. The promise of Microsoft’s OMI participation is this: you can configure other people’s hardware and software via the same frameworks your Windows Server runs on (CIM, the next-gen WMI) using the same techniques and tooling you manage other things with: Powershell.

All your management constructs are belong to CIM
All your management constructs are belong to CIM

I’ve been keenly interested in Microsoft & their OMI push because it’s an awesome vision, and it’s real, or real-close at any rate: SMI-S, for instance, is gaining traction as a management play on other people’s hardware/software storage systems ((cf NIMBLE STORAGE NOW INTEGRATES WITH SCVMM)) , and is already baked-into Windows server as a feature you can install and use to manage Windows Storage Spaces, which itself is a first-class citizen of CIMville.

All your CIM classes -running as part of Windows or not- manipulated & managed via Powershell, the same ISE you and I use to deploy Hyper-V hosts, spin-up VMs, manage our tenants in Office 365, fiddle around in Azure, and make each day at work a little better and a little more automated than the last.

That’s the promised land right there, ladies and gentlemen.

Except for networking, the last stubborn holdout in my fevered powershell dream.

Jeff Snover, the architect of the vision, teases me with Powershell Leaf Spine Tweets like this:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

but  I have yet to replace Putty with Powershell, I still have to do show int status rather than show-interface -status “connected” on my switch because I don’t have an Arista or N7K, and few other switches vendors seem to be getting the OMI religion.

All of which makes Microsoft’s Tuesday announcement that it is extending its commitment to OCP’s whitebox switching development really odd yet worthy of more consideration:

The Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) team at Microsoft is excited to announce that we will showcase our first implementations of the specification at the Open Compute Project Summit, which kicks off today at the San Jose Convention Center. SAI is a specification by the OCP that provides a consistent programming interface for common networking functions implemented by network switch ASIC’s. In addition, SAI allows network switch vendors to continue to build innovative features through extensions.

The SAI v0.92 introduces numerous proposals including:

Access Control Lists (ACL)
Equal Cost Multi Path (ECMP)
Forwarding Data Base (FDB, MAC address table)
Host Interface
Neighbor database, Next hop and next hop groups
Port management
Quality of Service (QoS)
Route, router, and router interfaces

At first glance, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that this thing, this SAI, means OMI is dead in networking, that managing route/switch via Powershell is gone.

But looking deeper, this development speaks to Microsoft’s unique position in the market (all markets, really!)

  1. SAI is probably more about low-level interaction with Broadcom’s Trident II ((At least that’s my read on the Github repo material)) and Microsoft’s participation in this is more about Azure and less about managing networking stuff w/Powershell
  2. But this is also perhaps Microsoft acknowledging that Linux-powered whitebox switching is really enjoying some momentum, and Microsoft needs to have something in this space

So, let’s review: Microsoft has embraced Open Compute & Open Management. It breaks down like this:

  • Microsoft + OCP =  Contributions of hardware blueprints but also low-level software code for things like ASIC interaction
  • Microsoft + OMI = A long-term strategic push to manage x86 hardware & software systems that may run Windows, but likely run something Linuxy yet

In a perfect world, OCP and OMI would just join forces and be followed by all the web-scale players, the enterprise technology vendors, the storage guys & packet pushers. All would gather together under a banner singing kumbaya and praising agnostic open hardware managed via a common, well-defined framework named CIM that you can plug into any front-end GUI or CLI construct you like.

Alas, it’s not a perfect world and OCP & OMI are different things. In the real world, you still need a proprietary API to manage a storage system, or a costly license to utilize another switchport. And worst of all, in this world, Powershell is not my interface to everything, it is not yet the answer to all IT questions.

Yet Microsoft, by virtue of its position in so many different markets, is very close now to creating its own perfect world. If they find some traction with SAI, I’m certain it won’t be long before you can manage an open Microsoft-designed switch that’s a first-class OMI citizen and gets along famously with Powershell! ((Or buy one, as you can buy the Azure-in-a-box which is simply the OCP blueprint via Dell/Microsoft Cloud Platform System program))

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