Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Dell Technologies: Enterprise SONiC Distribution Review

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For the most responsive and efficient networks, data center managers needed to deploy networking equipment and software without the heavy overhead burden of traditional operating systems. Network operating system (NOS) solutions were developed, so networks could deploy lightweight software to manage the most complex networks.

Microsoft developed an NOS based on Linux and used it as the networking backbone to make Azure agile and efficient. Microsoft later donated its Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC) to the Open Compute Project.

SONiC takes the original components of networking and breaks it up into smaller plug-and-play capabilities that can be deployed separately as containers. Third-party applications can similarly be embedded as additional containers in the NOS, and an NOS can be installed directly on to the bare metal of switches and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs).

Experts expect the SONiC project to become the Linux of NOS. This would make Dell’s Enterprise SONiC Distribution the equivalent of RedHat’s Linux distribution — open-source software with enterprise-class support.

However, Dell also directly contributes to the open-source development of SONiC. Dell’s director of product management and strategy for emerging networking technologies, Saurabh Kapoor, noted to The Register that “Dell has contributed over a million lines of code and five thousand defect fixes” to the SONiC open-source project.

See below to learn all about Dell Technologies Enterprise SONiC Distribution and where it stands in the network operating system market:

Review of Dell Technologies Enterprise SONiC Distribution

Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution and the network operating system market

The network operating system market includes NOS software itself as well as services for integration, maintenance, training, and consulting. NOS overlaps with the data center networking market, which includes software and services as well as hardware.

Maximize Market Research estimates that the NOS market will be valued at $15.2 billion in 2027, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 41.2%.

Dell commissioned a study by IDC that predicts: $2 billion of 2024 revenue will be from sales of data center switches embedded with SONiC; SONiC may become the equivalent of Linux for the NOS market.

By embedding Enterprise SONiC directly into the hardware, Dell will be competing in the data center networking market, which Grand View Research estimated to be valued at $19.9 billion in 2018 and growing at a CAGR of 11%. By 2021, Arizton estimated the data center networking market to be $24.8 billion, with a CAGR of 6.22%.

Dell’s has several competitors in the NOS market: such as, Alibaba, Arista Networks, Cisco Systems, Edgewater Networks, HPE (Aruba), HUAWEI, Infinera, Intel, IP Fusion, Juniper Networks, Niral Networks, NXP Semiconductors, PLVision, Tencent, and Wind River Systems. Participating in the data center networking market includes competitors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Broadcom, Equinix, Hitachi Data Systems, and VMware.

Key features

Dell’s Enterprise SONiC Distribution is the first commercial version of SONiC with enterprise features and support. This solution provides the flexibility of open-source architectures for those without the ability or interest to customize open-source products on their own.

Full technical specifications are available, but an overview of the key features include:

  • Open-source technology
  • Centralized management platform
    • Adopts and supports open and industry standards, like OpenConfig, gNMI, REST
    • Centralized, intuitive, and holistic command-line interface (CLI)
  • Disaggregated, containerized microservices architecture
  • Network functionality (Layer 2 and Layer 3 protocols):
    • Border Gateway Protocol (BGP)
    • Remote direct memory access (RDMA)
    • Support for Power over Ethernet (PoE), PoE+, UPOE; 802.1x support (port security); and symmetric and asymmetric Virtual Extensible Large Area Networks (VXLANs)
  • Quality of service differentiation
    • Class of service
    • Differentiated services to code point to traffic class mapping
    • Random early discard
  • Manageability, automation, and monitoring
    • Zero-touch provisioning
    • IPv4/IPv6 management
    • Role-based access control
    • Out-of-band management
  • Support for SmartNIC/DPUs that offload networking and security functions from server CPUs to handle encryption and decryption, firewalling, packet inspection
  • Flexible support from the data center to edge devices:
    • Encompasses retail systems, kiosks, security cameras
    • Connects mini data centers with core data centers
    • Enables machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and edge IoT (Internet of Things) combinations
    • Version 4.0 supports branch and data center integration
    • Version 4.x will support guest and voice VLAN
  • Integrated into Dell EMC PowerSwitch Open Networking hardware
    • Full hardware support, including LEDs, power, environmentals

Key benefits

Customer seeking an NOS solution such as Dell’s Enterprise SONiC Distribution seek the following key benefits:

Improved security

Patching together separate security profiles for multiple data centers and a host of edge devices can introduce gaps and inconsistencies in implementation as well as increase the difficulty for upgrades and patching. Deploying open-source NOS solutions can create additional work for security teams to search through documentation to locate all of the potential settings and configuration options.

Dell’s Enterprise SONiC Distributions are sold pre-hardened for improved security for customers that want enterprise-ready, enterprise-supported, and enterprise-backed solutions. Enterprise SONiC provides a single solution to encompass multiple data centers and edge devices with support for port security and private/voice VLANs.

As a Linux-based tool, Linux security teams will be familiar with the code and can manage infrastructure security with minimal training. Dell’s support infrastructure can also supply guidance and consulting.

Improved uptime

Even the most sound hardware will need servicing or replacement from time to time, but customers have become intolerant of downtime. NOS solutions can automatically migrate connections and workloads to deliver zero downtime for in-service updates and upgrade the entire network all at once.

Rapid innovation and growth

As an open-source solution, many third-party programmers add features to SONiC that can be deployed quickly in a containerized Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution deployment. The supported architecture also allows for highly scalable infrastructure that can resize quickly and automatically.

Unified network operating system

A single NOS solution provides one fabric for consolidating multiple data centers, both cloud and on-premises, and edge resources as one network with a single common toolset to manage them. This provides consistent security, monitoring, and automation across the infrastructure. Using Enterprise SONiC Deployment supports modern network architectures’ cloud-centric network operations and software-defined networking (SDN).

Use cases

SONiC NOS has found adoption among tier-two cloud operators, communication service providers, and some large enterprises, according to IDC.  For hyperscalers and larger enterprises, the two most common use cases are leaf-spine Clos data center fabrics:

  • Layer 3 BGP underlay providing hyperscale data center networks for enterprises
  • VXLAN tunneling of Layer 2 traffic over a Layer 3 Border Gateway Protocol Ethernet VPN (BGP-EVPN) networks to support traditional and modern applications, including microservices and those orchestrated with Kubernetes

Many data centers seek network switches pre-loaded with SONiC or SONiC-capable devices, and Gartner predicts as high as 40% of organizations running large data centers will use SONiC. Although open-source software provides many benefits, the largest companies also want service and support and will turn to branded solutions with enterprise backing, such as Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution.


As a growing managed hosting provider, team.blue’s 1,500 employees support over two million customers in more than 10 countries. team.blue needed to replace its inflexible network built on proprietary technology that was difficult to learn.

Their IT infrastructure team sought an open-source networking option that could support a variety of third-party vendors and would be actively updated.

“We believe SONiC is the future of networking,” says Michael Munk Lassen, head of technology for infrastructure for team.blue in the Nordics. 

“Given its Microsoft origins, SONiC is continually being maintained and updated, and it’s used in Microsoft Azure and other big cloud providers. … Its ability to do API-based orchestration, telemetry, and all that stuff is very important to us. We recognize this isn’t unique to SONiC, because many vendors can do it. … some just choose to make it harder than others.”

team.blue also benefited from the enterprise-class support provided by Dell.

“Not only has Dell Technologies provided us an insane amount of confidence in the product, but they’ve supported and enabled us, so that we can move forward faster and easier than we normally could without their help,” Lassen says.


While based on a free, open-source NOS solution, customers can choose Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution based upon the following differentiators:

Brand power

Large enterprises need assurance that the technology providing the infrastructure for their integrated data centers will work effectively and as advertised. Selecting a solution backed by a large corporation such as Dell provides assurance simply based upon Dell’s brand reputation and industry longevity.

Additionally, customers can be provided with guarantees that their solution will run on Dell PowerSwitch platforms and integrate with other Dell products. Moreover, Dell’s size and reputation also reduces concerns regarding the supplier’s financial instability for the non-technical executives that must authorize the financial investment.

Enterprise solution

Dell’s Enterprise SONiC Distribution is based on an open-source tool already tested in hyperscale environments, such as Microsoft’s Azure. More importantly, enterprises can rely on Dell’s enterprise-level support for both hardware and software in 165 countries and through 60,000+ partner professionals.

From full-service transitions to advisory consultations, customers can obtain as much or as little help as needed. Customers can also obtain training, hand-on labs, and technical and field support teams.

Dell can ship network switches already preloaded with SONiC to accelerate a customer’s deployment and expansion. Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution also has additional support not available in the open-source version, such as scale-out VXLAN EVPN, unified management framework, ansible automation, and silicon telemetry.


Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution can be obtained either as a Cloud or an Enterprise bundle, but there is no difference in price between the two. Dell offers subscriptions of one, three, or five years, with discounts applicable for the longer terms.

Enterprise SONiC Distribution has two tiers of pricing: Standard and Premium. While Dell does not publish pricing specifics, it notes that each tier is priced at three different platform speeds: 1/10 gigabit Ethernet (GbE), 25/100 GbE, and 400 GbE.


Organizations seeking network operating system solutions need light-weight tools to consolidate control of their network infrastructure across highly complex and often hyperscaled environments. Open-source solutions provide great flexibility, but larger companies often need enterprise-level support for deployment, development, and trouble-shooting. Organizations can select Dell Enterprise SONiC Distribution with confidence of receiving enterprise-class support for a product developed by Microsoft, tested in Azure, and further developed by Dell’s networking experts.

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