Make way Cisco, Arista and Juniper: Nokia enters the data center switching fray

After two years of heads down development by its engineers, Nokia has entered the data center switching arena with a new network operating system and intent-based automation and operations toolkit.

With its entry into the data center switching sector, Nokia is taking on industry giants such as Cisco, Arista Networks and Juniper Networks. Nokia leaned on its many years of experience in developing IP, optical technologies and its work with webscale companies in developing its new Nokia Service Router Linux NOS (network operating system) and Fabric Services Platform (FSP) toolkit.

"We think there's a big opportunity for something new in market, and this really goes back to ongoing work that we've been doing with a number of the hyperscalers," said Steve Vogelsang, CTO for Nokia’s IP/optical networks business group. "We've had pretty good exposure to the challenges they faced in building their data center networks. There's been pretty rapid expansion of their cloud footprints.

"What they found when they started building the data center networks is that there really wasn't a vendor that had a solution that lined up with their requirements, particularly when it comes to software."

Since there wasn't a solution available in the market, hyperscale cloud providers built their own software systems to manage the large number of servers that were needed to manage workloads in the cloud by using their own codes.

With the onset of 5G, Industry 4.0, cloud-based applications and other technology shifts, Vogelsang said hyperscale providers, telcos and enterprises need open data center fabric solutions that allow access to the NOS and tools in order to customize  networks and workloads.

Nokia has already signed up Apple as a customer while Equinix, BT and Turkcell have also expressed keen interest. Apple is using Nokia's data center offerings in a data center that it's building in Viborg, Denmark.

Vogelsang said Nokia's SR Linux NOS was the first fully modern microservices-based NOS. It's SR Linux NDK (NetOps development kit) enables customization by providing a set of programming capabilities.

"What we're focused on doing is empowering cloud builders across the world to more rapidly design, deploy, adapt, and automate their data center infrastructure using similar toolkits to what they've been using to manage their DevOps environments inside of their cloud compute infrastructure," Vogelsang said. "This is a brand new switch operating system built from the ground up. We started with a clean sheet of paper. It not only enables a very open environment, but also enables some of the foundational technologies we built on our routing portfolio over the years."

Nokia FSP provides the set of tools service providers and enterprises need to implement intent and policy-based operation of their networks. FSP was designed to build, deploy and monitor the entire data center network with network level constructs. Nokia said FSP includes technologies that were previously only available to the largest cloud-builders.

"So this (FSP) is the software layer that simplifies operation of the data center network," he said. "Its intent driven, which basically means it's driven by abstraction and code. It scales extremely well, you can manage very large infrastructure, and it enables that full automation. So for those customers who don't have their own software stacks to operate a large environment, FSP provides that for them."

The Nokia FSP integrates with existing operational systems and includes a digital sandbox for real-time fabric simulation that can be used for network design, testing and troubleshooting. FSP-certified designs decrease fabric design times and simplify Day 0, Day 1 and Day 2 planning activities, according to Nokia. The simulations give NetOps teams more confidence across all stages of large fabric deployments and operations, allowing them to run more efficiently at a lower cost and with fewer staff.

RELATED: Hyperscale data center count reaches 541 with 176 more in the works

The third element of Nokia's data center play is its new switch hardware. The portfolio includes the Nokia 7250 Interconnect Router (IXR), Nokia 7220 IXR-H series and Nokia 7220 IXR-D series platforms, which offer a broad range of high-performance chassis-based and fixed-form-factor options for data center top of rack (TOR), leaf, spine and super-spine applications.

The hardware support 400GE, 100GE, 50GE, 40GE, 25GE, 10GE and 1GE interfaces as well as a set of capabilities spanning IP routing, Layer 2 switching, QoS, scalable telemetry, security and model-driven management.

SR Linux, 7250 IXR and 7220 IXR-D series are now available while the FSP and 7220 IXR-H series are slated to be available in the fourth quarter.

Sizing up the competition

According to research by 650 Group, the data center switching market estimated to exceed $17 billion in 2024. Cloud providers are rapidly building more data centers to keep pace with the increased networking demands from content delivery networks, video conferencing companies, and more applications and services running in clouds. With work-from-home mandates, online learning and more online gaming, Vogelsang the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the need for more data center capacity.

Taking on the likes of Cisco and Arista as a newcomer in the data center switching space is no small task, but Nokia isn't just any startup.

“Nokia joins Arista, Cisco, and Juniper with purpose-built products designed from the ground up for the cloud hyperscalers," said Alan Weckel, 650 Group's founder and technology analyst. "Nokia continues to expand its cloud product offerings with a new network operating system, automation platform and data center switches built with close partnership with one of the U.S. hyperscalers and this new solution targets the clouds migration to 400 and 800 Gbps.  There is a new multibillion-dollar opportunity in switching from this class of products.”

In an email to FierceTelecom, Weckel offered the following break down on how Nokia stacks up against Cisco, Arista and Juniper:

• Cisco's NCS5K compared to Nokia’s modular chassis and Nexus 3K against Nokia’s fixed platforms;—The main differences are Nokia’s approach is a single operating system versus two from Cisco.  Nokia’s OS is more modern and purpose-built for the Cloud. Cisco’s OS is built for service providers and enterprises and has more features than the cloud needs.

• Juniper's PTX against the Nokia’s modular chassis and QFX against Nokia’s fixed platforms—Juniper recently rewrote JUNOS to be more modern (LINUX based and cloud-friendly).  Nokia uses merchant silicon on the modular chassis compared to Juniper using its own ASIC.

• Arista's 7500R/7800R  against the Nokia’s modular chassis  and 7060/7260  against Nokia’s Fixed platforms—It's the same silicon between the two vendors. The difference is going to be on operating system features and vendor relationships.  Nokia will leverage its routing and optical connections in the cloud while Arista will leverage its existing relationships.

"Overall, this is very good for the industry," Weckel said. "The hyperscalers want multi-vendor and multi-ASIC solutions for switching, routing, optical transport, and Ethernet DCI (ZR/ZR+) for western vendors. 

"Nokia adds an additional vendor to the mix right as the hyperscalers are evaluating their 400G and 800G architectures and plans. Greater vendor offerings have always been good for the Ethernet market. That is why it is so robust and always wins the protocol wars against other options."