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AI/Automation

Juniper takeover makes Apstra look as agnostic as the Pope

Shazam used to be a very cool app. Down at the local Starbucks, you could fire it up and find out the name of that catchy tune without exposing yourself to the potential ridicule of interpersonal inquiry. It was like being in the company of a music buff who wouldn't laugh at your ignorance of metal or fondness for 1980s pop.

While still cool, it has lost some of its allure since Apple paid $400 million for it in September 2018. Before that deal, Shazam had no interest in promoting Apple Music over any alternative. Thanks to its neutrality, you could just as easily hop to Spotify or another streaming service to play your Shazam-identified tune. These days, that's quite a bit harder. The Apple Music logo is everywhere. Links to Apple's catalog are almost unavoidable.

A similar loss of neutrality has just occurred in the rather more arcane world of the data center. In this case, the acquiring firm is Juniper Networks, best known as the main rival to Cisco in the market for Internet routers and switches. The Shazam equivalent is Apstra.

Founded in 2014, the California start-up has been hot stuff in the market for data center automation. It claims to have pioneered a concept called "intent-based networking" (IBN) that would, essentially, allow systems to run themselves after receiving a few brief commands from an increasingly superfluous technician. Its proudest claim, however, is to be as neutral as the Shazam of 2017. "From the ground up, we were designed to be vendor-agnostic," said Mansour Karam, Apstra's founder and president, at a press briefing last year.

It will not take a genius to spot the conflict. Apstra says (or has said) its neutrality sets it apart from competitors that want to "lock customers into their hardware," in the words of Karam. Juniper, until now, was one of those companies. The acquisition makes Apstra look about as independent as Fox News.

Indeed, if vendor agnosticism was Apstra's special sauce, this deal risks entirely defeating the purpose of Apstra. "They were meant to be a neutral management layer that could have any vendor's kit underneath, white box or otherwise," says James Crawshaw, a principal analyst with Omdia.


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The real losers could be the companies selling white boxes and switches built with off-the-shelf equipment. "It will make it easier for a Cisco customer to also use Juniper kit in the same data center and have one management tool for both," says Crawshaw. "But, obviously, Juniper doesn't want them to use the tool to also run white box vendors."

Juniper's decision to buy Apstra does seem to vindicate Karam's earlier boastfulness about the superiority of his company's IBN technology. An IBN taxonomy it developed last year defined Level 0 as "basic automation" and Level 3 as full "self-operation." Apstra, said Karam, "is at Level 2 and going to Level 3, and every other solution is at Level 0 and heading to Level 1." A list of operating systems (OS) Apstra supports already included Juniper's technology as well as SONiC, an open source OS for network routers. Both get a mention in today's official announcement.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Juniper said it does not expect Apstra to impact revenues next year. That leads Crawshaw to believe the purchase price is "well below" the $400 million-plus that Juniper paid for Mist and 128, two firms with artificial intelligence claims. Juniper has been on something of an acquisition spree. Netrounds, a Swedish networking testing and monitoring specialist, is another business it recently bought.

Disappointing as the takeover might be to some, Crawshaw thinks Apstra's multi-vendor management tool "will help Juniper expand its presence in a Cisco-dominated market." White box vendors, watch out.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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