Hedgehog Digs Into SONiC Automation


By: R. Scott Raynovich

Here's an exciting new open-source networking startup with a great name: Hedgehog. Founded by an experienced networking team, Hedgehog is aimed at improving the management and automation of the open-source SONiC network operating system (NOS), which was created by Microsoft and now is widely used in private and cloud datacenters.

The founding team of Hedgehog should gain attention and gather capital right out of the gate. The cofounders include CEO Marc Austin, former Head of Growth for Cisco’s Internet for the Future Business; cofounder and CTO Mike Dvorkin, former distinguished engineer at Cisco and a founder and advisor of numerous startups, including Insieme Networks; and Josh Saul, a veteran marketer and engineer with stints at Apstra and Cumulus Networks.

Hedgehog has not yet revealed its funding and investors, but expect more news on this in the next month or so. The company is at the pre-seed stage and we understand it will announce a sizable round with well-known investors in the networking space.

Solving SONiC for the People

Hedgehog, launched today, hopes to bring SONiC to the masses. The main premise is clear: SONiC has been successful as an accessible and low-cost networking solution in large datacenters – but its limited management tools have capped its potential.

Hedgehog founders told me they believe that so far, SONiC’s technology has been limited to large hyperscalers and enterprises that build their own automation and management tools on top of SONiC. Hedgehog aims to introduce better tools to broaden SONiC’s market appeal.

“We started Hedgehog to make it easier to deploy cloud-native applications in fully-automated, conveniently available, low-cost infrastructure,” Austin told me in a recent interview. “We can help build on SONiC as the winner in disaggregated networking.”

In addition to leading automation and growth at Cisco’s Internet for the Future Division, Austin was also the Head of Broadband IoT at Jasper, the IoT networking company acquired by Cisco in 2018. He also believes that Hedgehog can help extend SONiC’s market into edge compute, where many industries are looking for affordable and easier-to-manage networking solutions to build edge-compute applications.

“Bringing up the edge compute is not easy and the networking piece is the hardest,” said Austin. “We enable that distributed cloud architecture.”

According to Hedgehog’s launch PR:

Engineers at AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform know that the secret sauce for hyperscale is infrastructure automation. Unfortunately, no automated management and orchestration tools currently exist for the SONiC community. Network operations teams must write their own automation scripts to deploy and manage SONiC.

In addition to improving the management and automation of SONiC, Hedgehog also plans to build software to help SONiC to become a better tool for managing networking for Kubernetes.

Dvorkin’s On Board the Hedgehog

One big piece of news in the Hedgehog launch is Mike Dvorkin, Hedgehog’s CTO, who recently left Cisco after a decades-long career there. Dvorkin has been a longtime figure in the networking industry, where he has advised and invested in numerous startups. He is perhaps most well-known as being one of the key architects behind Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) strategy, which became the foundation of Cisco’s datacenter networking strategy when it acquired Insieme Networks, where Dvorkin was a cofounder and Chief Scientist.

In a recent interview before the Hedgehog launch, Dvorkin told me he was excited about the opportunities at the intersection of SONiC and Kubernetes as networking continues to be a chokepoint for distributed cloud applications.

“There is no consumerization of SONiC around Kubernetes,” Mike Dvorkin told me in an interview. “We intend to distribute cloud-native tools to help build infrastructure as code."

Hedgehog will follow the classic cloud-native software gameplan: It will release its tools and code as open source and build premium tools on top of that. It will strike partnerships with hardware OEMs to distribute its automation software.

SONiC Has Been Gaining Traction

SONiC seems like a great place to start. In our discussions with end users, SONiC has broad appeal as an alternative to more expensive, vertically integrated solutions. New use cases at the edge and in multicloud networking will also likely push open-source networking into a wider market.

The SONiC NOS was developed by Microsoft for its Azure cloud but it was taken over by the Linux Foundation earlier this year and has a wide distribution on open-source hosting services such as Github. Based on Linux, it runs 100 different switch form factors from multiple equipment vendors and ASIC manufacturers. At last count, the community had at least 850 members, with companies shipping or using SONiC products including Alibaba, Aviz Networks, Celestica, Arista Networks, Arrcus, Broadcom, Dell, Cisco, Comcast, Juniper, Nokia, NVIDIA, and VMware. It's widely adopted in many clouds, most notably Microsoft’s Azure networking services.

SONiC has emerged as one of the leading open-source disaggregated NOSs in a market with a complicated history littered with disappointments. These include Big Switch Networks and Cumulus Networks, disaggregated NOSs that are widely considered by the community not to have lived up to their promise (Big Switch was sold for an undisclosed amount to Arista Networks in 2020 and Cumulus was sold to NVIDIA in 2020). Although NVIDIA acquired Cumulus and integrated it with Mellanox switching technology, it was hampered by Broadcom's move to abandon its software development kit (SDK) for Cumulus. NVIDIA has its own SONiC distribution and recently appears to have put more weight behind that.

More recently, newer cloud-native NOSs have come onto the scene, including muticloud and edge networking specialist Arrcus, which has been having much success in communications networks, enterprise, and colocation deployments. Arrcus counts CoreSite, Softbank, Target, and Yahoo among its customers. Another cloud networking company, DriveNets, has had success with a cloud networking platform for service providers, including AT&T.

Can Hedgehog get over the open-source NOS startup hump? The key will come down to the team's vision with a simple business model strategy: distribute as much technology for free as possible, make SONiC as easy as possible to operate, then build commercial automation tools on top of that.

Hedgehog cites research from the 650 Group forecasting the worldwide market for SONiC exceeding $5 billion in revenue by 2026. Gartner client interest in SONiC increased 87% from 2020 to 2021, leading them to predict that by 2025, 40% of organizations that operate large datacenter networks will run SONiC in production environments.

Our own research shows expanding use cases for networking at the edge, as applications such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), computer vision, smart retail, and smart manufacturing drive the need for cloud-based networking at the edge.

The Hedgehog cofounders point out that most vendors only support their own SONiC distributions, and in some cases those vendor distributions diverge significantly from the open-source community edition. Hedgehog aims to reduce this fragmentation by becoming the first independent software vendor to support a wide list of certified devices with an open-source distribution.

Hedgehog brings fresh blood to the SONiC market with an experienced team -- it's going to be interesting to watch this play out.