What Is Dent?

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By: Mary Jander

The following Tech Primer is sponsored by The Linux Foundation.

Information technology (IT) is undergoing a fundamental shift. With the rise of remote work, faster mobile services, and cloud environments, the branch office has become a focal point for business applications. And each enterprise outpost, whether warehouse, gas station, retail store, or field office, requires networking to match this distributed environment.

Nearly two years ago, The Linux Foundation recognized that the kind of networking solutions that served centralized or regional data centers no longer fit this new decentralized paradigm. Instead of traditional, heavyweight switches and routers based on proprietary software, the group believed a solution was needed that could fit in a closet or on a shelf and run without the complexities associated with data center gear. They developed an alternative lightweight, vendor-agnostic network operating system (NOS) capable of running on any Linux-compatible platform, including servers, switches, and even silicon. Named Dent in honor of the main character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the solution has gradually built momentum among retail operators and industrial customers in Europe and North America.

Dent’s Origin and Basic Structure

Work on Dent began in December 2019, and The Linux Foundation announced the first code release, dubbed Arthur, in December 2020. Charter members included a roster of leading original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), original design manufacturers (ODMs), switch application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) suppliers, and retailers: Amazon; Delta Electronics; Edgecore Networks; Marvell Technology Group; Cumulus Networks and Mellanox (both now part of NVIDIA); and Wistron NeWeb (WNC) of Taiwan. These companies were joined later by Arcadyan, Alpha Networks, Aviz Networks, Innovium, and Sartura.

These contributors believed that the Linux Kernel would be the best foundation for a small yet stable and flexible solution for branch-style Ethernet switches. This choice enabled them to avoid complex abstraction layers that might slow performance. Instead, the group used the SwitchDev interface inside the Linux Kernel to disaggregate the network control and data planes in a manner illustrated by the diagram below:

Dent’s design allows it to be installed as easily as Linux. Unlike solutions from data center suppliers, it requires no licensing fees. There is no special software development kit (SDK) nor integration toolset required.

Since all hardware is addressed through the same interface, Dent is not just switch agnostic but indifferent to whether the underlying hardware is silicon, server, sensor, camera, or other Internet of Things (IoT) device. This provides users with options to use easy-to-deploy equipment, including white-box solutions that require less maintenance and are sized to fit small storage, warehouse, or retail spaces.

Dent’s mission is closely tied to its status as an open source NOS. Adopters can take advantage of ongoing contributions from over 40,000 top developers in over 40 countries worldwide who contribute code to The Linux Foundation. These contributors hail from hundreds of organizations, including 100% of the Fortune 100 technology and telecom companies. There is no lack of expertise to tap for remote-site applications based on Dent.

Is Dent Like SONiC?

Dent’s role as a vendor-agnostic NOS tempts comparisons to SONiC (Software for Open Networking in the Cloud). But the two approaches serve different purposes, and they can coexist.

Though SONiC is built on a Linux distribution, it contains a requisite Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) that decouples vendor-proprietary ASICs from the NOS control plane and deploys a microservices-based API (application programming interface) to forward information from ASICs to NOS. Its containerized approach makes it easily adaptable to numerous switch and router environments.

But this adaptability is a double-edged sword. Because of the options and complexities of its SAI, SONiC can be architecturally challenging to implement. Therefore, SONiC is typically installed with equipment from major data center suppliers, including Arista, Cisco, Juniper Networks, Marvell, and Mellanox/NVIDIA, to name a few. These vendors, along with cloud providers, especially Microsoft, are well equipped to keep pace with the engineering challenges of SONiC.

In contrast, since Dent runs in the Linux Kernel and requires no SAI, it’s simpler and more cost-efficient to implement, particularly for remote-site users in home offices, branch offices, retail stores, hotels, hospitals, and warehouses who may not have much IT expertise – or building space.

Because Dent will connect via Ethernet to any other switch, whether the switch runs SONiC or other NOS software, it can coexist with SONiC and other NOSs as needed. For instance, SONiC might be used in a central or regional data center, with Dent deployed in remote sites.

Summary: Why Dent Now

The COVID-19 crisis precipitated a shift to remote work and cloud-based digital applications. In turn, this put the focus on the network edge, where the branch office meets the geographically distributed environment of today’s enterprise. At the same time, 5G services have spread, opening the way for innovation in industrial automation, computer vision, and sensor-based applications that rely on edge deployments.

All this has spurred demand for edge solutions that are lightweight, vendor agnostic, more adaptable, and easier to support than traditional data center gear. Enter Dent, which replaces proprietary NOSs with an open source solution adaptable to small spaces and white-box Ethernet equipment.

This flexibility and cost effectiveness gives Dent a place in verticals such as industrial controls, warehouse and retail inventory, hospitality, and medical monitoring. Dent also will facilitate applications that require 5G networking, which promises to usher in dramatic improvements in automation, monitoring, and cloud connectivity. In summary, Dent brings deep open source/Linux roots and provides support and standardization that will accelerate deployments of edge networking services.

Find out how Dent lowers costs and can improve your networking infrastructure immediately. Download here.