Over the past few years of blogging, many of my most popular posts have been interviews with industry thought leaders. To that end, I have started a new interview series I call ‘the catch-up,’ where I will catch up with interesting thought leaders in the industry.
This is the first interview in the series, featuring Cumulus Networks CEO JR Rivers. Over the next few weeks, I will post interviews with Martin Casado, David Meyer, Rob Hirschfeld, Dan Pitt, and many more. In the past I have only posted the text from interviews; now I have also started recording the interviews and will post them on my YouTube channel, OpenNetworking.TV.
For Today’s interview, JR shared some great stories about how Cumulus got started and what they are seeing in the market today. Watch the video below, or read on for the full transcript.
Please excuse any spelling or grammatical errors in this transcript.
Art Fewell: Welcome to OpenNetworking.TV this is the catch up, and today we’ve got on the show for you JR Rivers of Cumulus networks, the makers of Linux for networking and really brought networking into the Linux age. From a market dynamics standpoint or from a Wall Street standpoint Cumulus has really been one of the startups watch and a huge disruptive growth vehicle and you’ve been sitting very visibly at the helm of that.
JR Rivers: Thanks Art and thanks everyone for tuning in. The Cumulus story begins from a pretty simple perspective in that I’ve been a networking for sixteen years, worked for Cisco, helped Google as they started building their network equipment. Inevitably from when I started off in networking and in every big new transition there’s always been one fundamental goal, which is to help customers get better interconnect than they had before.
When I talk to customers they often talk about the super fancy things they might do with networking and I always try to break it down for them and say ‘what do you really really want?’ In the end it always turns into ‘I want a big fat free bus’. So I want really high-capacity network I want it to not get in my way.
James Hamilton said a great in some of his Amazon pitches. In recent times networking has been in the way of customers and a lot of times people want to take James’s statements to mean, ‘hey I need to have some new fancy network feature the network didn’t do yesterday’, but really what James was trying to say is that from a cost performance standpoint, networking as of a couple years ago was nowhere near the evolution phase that compute or even storage are at.
And so from a Cumulus perspective we are really focused on moving the networking industry into that same evolved barrier of super high capacity interconnect, easy to deploy, easy to deploy at scale, works easily & is easy to acquire. Its kind of affordable capacity that’s easy to get out there and that’s what drives us in pretty much everything that we do.
Art Fewell: If you take a step back and talk about the changes that we’re trying to make in the networking industry and if you look at the macro-economic standpoint, we are saying that it’s nothing that’s surprising or unique about the networking industry, any industry that has lopsided market share without multiple really strong and competitive suppliers they all end up bad, they all suffer loss of innovation and all pass along a lot of extra cost to the customer. I think having open source as the center for your ecosystem is is really a critical component for building the industrial commons a healthy industry needs.
JR Rivers: Yeah you’ve raised a really good point, Cumulus Linux from a networking perspective – a lot of what we do leverages and focuses and integrates open source and a lot of networking technology that customers consume today. We were recently going through a master source agreement with a customer and they had us give the open source list and were worried about libraries that we might have and licensing requirements. We took a look at a bunch a competitive products found that all those products had the same license exposure to the customer that they were worried about with our platform, but we were transparent about it, the customer could see everything under the covers.
It’s that transparency that the open source community or that open source perspective gives to customer’s. It’s not so much the customer wants to go build something themselves it’s the fact they can see inside if they choose to. If they want to look at a piece a code and understand how some things work they’re allowed to but more often than not they want somebody to take responsibility for making sure that everything works all the time. As a customer you don’t want to go hire a bunch of developers to integrate stuff. Any of this code whether its networking or storage or your compute code you want somebody else to be responsible for the integration at scale, you just want to use it to further your business cause.
Art Fewell: We often get focused on the technical side of networking, but as the internet grows we see a lot of potential to help solve a lot of really big human problems. We’ve seen people like Peter Diamandis or the Clinton Global Foundation out there showing that as we bring the rest the world’s seven billion people onto the internet, it’s not just about ‘this product is better than that product’, it’s about how we’re going to
to change everything we know about health, we are going to take all the people that starving and without water in the world and change that, and when we can come together in these open movements and put that behind us its fundamentally important in realizing that we all are doing really important work for the future of the world.
JR Rivers: I agree with you about that what we’re doing is quintessential and meaningful; we’re doing it in our small little piece in the industry in the industrial complex that gets technology applied usefully to the common good.
You know when I look at some of our funding rounds, Andreesen Horowitz happens to have lead our Series A funding and when we were talking to the partners, we started explaining what our vision was and why this matter to us, why were we interested in this whole networking thing. Mark Andreesen latched on to both Nolan and my core visceral perspective very early in the presentation he stood up and looked at the rest of the partners and said, ‘look guys you know its clear that the Cumulus team isn’t focused on reducing the cost of what somebody bought yesterday, the Cumulus team is focused on giving people way more networking than they had yesterday so they can write applications that they couldn’t write yesterday and do things that we don’t even know about’ and that’s really in the end what drives us.
Art Fewell: If you look at the Internet of Things from Fitbits to everything else is going to be connected to network, in there is pretty much everything that anyone will be making in the future. Now a lot of those are going to be products where the people launching them will want to create competitive differentiate with right? And in some cases you may be able to say ‘I can take a standard TCP/IP stack and will differentiate somewhere else application layer.’ But in a lot of these cases, to be able to find your differentiation you’re going to need to go in and customize various components of the stack, and regardless of which off-the-shelf software features you’re using, one thing is for certain once a feature is available in any off the shelf OS or app it will not be a differentiated piece of your product offering.
As people look forward and especially as more and more companies get into the Internet of Things, into making more and more of their own products network-centric, to me it seems Cumulus is really important in terms of, if I want to be able to innovate there I need to have that flexibility right?
JR Rivers: The Internet of Things (IoT) is a really interesting place to start. You can take that broad picture and broad perspective and start to narrow it down. When I look at IoT from a commercial perspective I look out and I see companies like Cisco and others stand up and try and be the leaders of the Internet of Things, from my perspective its kind of a crock of poo, because the IoT by definition is a federation, a loosely coupled ecosystem. I have bits and pieces that can connect to each other in ways that are recently well understood and they interact with other pieces of the IoT ecosystem as ships in the night, not knowing the other exists.
My classic example I give to people all time, consider your cell phone, you connect to at least 10 services through the network whether it’s the data network from your your smart phone provider or through your WiFi, it’s all happening – you don’t know who’s transporting any of this data anywhere but you connect to the services and you get the behavior that you’re expecting out of it. That federation is what makes it work and the definition of federation means that nobody owns it you don’t get to decide that the Internet of Things is X because I am company Y and I’m big and I have a 40 billion dollar annual revenue stream. Its gonna happen without you. Nobody owns this, but you can help enable it and from a Cumulus perspective our goal in enabling it is high-capacity interconnects in data centers and in carrier networks and to just focus on that. How do you move bits around really fast and really easily with low OPEX and low CAPEX.
Art Fewell: It is fascinating when you think about, you see all these guys out there saying ‘hey we have the platform for the internet of things and we’re going to be the center’. Whenever I hear that I think, ‘wow you really don’t understand how big how diverse that the internet of things is going to be’
JR Rivers: Right, it already is, the Internet of Things is just kinda the continuation of where we’re at today. Refrigerators and TV’s, Nest, your humidifiers, your heating controllers, your lighting systems all these things are already on the internet. This isn’t a new initiative. It’s not a set a standards that exist around it, its about a very loosely coupled ecosystem.
Boiling it down to the world that we live in, the small piece that Cumulus rules – we chose Linux as the foundation for the networking operating system because it allows federation in this small part of the world.
We have customers that put together well known configuration management tools or some homegrown monitoring mechanisms, they use the set of tools that makes sense for them in their environment. And it’s very federated, all these pieces can work together or you know or in exclusion of each other depending on what a customer might want and we just provide that platform and a foundation that an operating system is supposed to provide that allows customers to make those choices. And that’s why we’ve been reasonably successful along the way.
When we started the company we recognized that we would be very applicable to Internet facing businesses whether it’s a web services company or a service provider, a big internet retail presence or others like that, we knew we would make sense to them. We were unclear as to how this was going to work in the context of enterprises and what we’ve noticed over the the second half of last year is, we’re seeing enterprises look at their internal IT and they say ‘look, we have this legacy IT that’s is not built on a federated model it doesn’t look like the Internet of Things, I need this crazy little networking technology to make my application run and it cost me a lot of money in People time & OPEX dollars going to vendors and in CAPEX dollar’s going to vendors to run these applications and these networks this way.’
And then when they look at the rest world they see people like Zynga that are able to run a very distributed federated business, they have some data centers where they run an application half inside/half outside the public cloud, they move applications around, its a very loosely coupled highly federated business that’s run and these enterprises are looking at that and thinking ‘I need to have that same flexibility on my side’, and yes I can look at something like VCE and get a vBlock and plug it in but when I look at the metrics around that it doesn’t align with what I expect from my business metrics.
When I look at my IT department I want to measure those people as someone like Amazon or Google measure themselves. When Amazon sits down and looks at CAPEX and availability and OPEX and head count and all those things, they come out with a certain capacity per capita, like how many network switches do I have per networking engineer how many servers do have per sysadmin.
Actually when you look at some of the really big guys they dont even break it down that way, they say ‘how many switches and servers do I have per cloud admin’ They are starting to wrap their heads around a cloud admin or a cloud admin team that may have people that know little bit more about networking or a little bit more about storage but they’re still on the same team expected to have that same administrative breadth and the enterprises are seeing that unfold and are saying, ‘I need to have that same perspective around my IT, and I’m not going to get there by tweeking my current IT department, I’m gonna get there by starting a new IT department that is focused in this new way.’