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Choose your own network operating systems? IT pros weigh bare metal

Enterprise networking pros tend to favor uptime over innovation. Many see bare-metal switches with third-party network operating systems as risky. Can they be swayed?

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Bare-metal switches and third-party network operating systems are enjoying popularity among cloud providers, but this open hardware-software combo has yet to crack the front door at mainstream enterprises.

That trend has left some wondering whether these switches will ever debut in a typical enterprise. Dell's entrance into the market in early 2014 was expected to herald broader acceptance of bare-metal in brick-and-mortar businesses. HP and Juniper soon followed suit with their own takes on bare-metal and white-box switching. To facilitate improved interoperability, the Open Compute Project has recently been working on a specification for a common API across different network operating systems and ASICs.

Despite all of this activity, enterprise uptake of bare-metal switches has been tepid over the past year. But it will grow soon -- if only modestly. Bare-metal switch ports are expected to account for 26% of all ports shipped globally to data centers by 2019, says Clifford Grossner, a research director at IHS Infonetics Research. That's up from 12% in the first quarter of 2015. The forecast includes shipments to both service providers and enterprises.

"That's about one-quarter," Grossner acknowledges. "I'm not saying this is for every enterprise."

Bare-metal switches are starting to seed those enterprises that need them most, with the expectation that they will prove their value and reliability over time. But what will it take for this new model to gain the trust of most mainstream IT departments?

Need for vendor support

Enterprise network engineers say they are looking for not only professional support from their preferred vendor but also a clear use case for bare-metal switching.

"'Supportability' is a big thing with the enterprise. Your typical CIO, CTO or IT manager is really thinking about who will support this when it breaks," says Aaron Foy, a senior network engineer at Fairmount Santrol, which produces sand-based products for oil and gas exploration and production companies.

Fairmount Santrol -- based in Chesterland, Ohio -- has about 1,500 employees and earned $1.5 billion in revenue last year. Foy hesitates to entrust a critical service like the network to an open source platform without reliable vendor support -- preferably from a name he and the higher-ups know.

'Supportability' is a big thing with the enterprise. Your typical CIO, CTO or IT manager is really thinking about who will support this when it breaks.
Aaron Foysenior network engineer, Fairmount Santrol

And for many enterprise customers, a partnership between open hardware and third-party network operating systems would have to actually be with Cisco -- the biggest name in networking -- before they would consider budging from the traditional switches used in their networks today. For now, some say, this seems unlikely.

"There is no incentive for a company like Cisco to support these switches until they start to lose deals or revenue on a large scale," Foy says. It leaves the fate of bare-metal switching in a dilemma: Many enterprises aren't going to bite until the networking giant gets involved, but supply won't emerge without customer demand.

From Cisco's perspective, bare-metal switches are still in their infancy. According to one executive there, these open switches lack both a strong developer community and the vendor distribution channels necessary to make deep inroads into mainstream enterprises.

"As you have seen with our DevNet initiatives, Cisco is making major investments in enabling and empowering developers to manage switches with Linux tools or through Linux container technology," says Mike Cohen, a director of product management at Cisco. "This feature set, running on existing vendors' hardened platforms, is far more likely to have a major impact on the mainstream enterprise than the early work in bare-metal switching to date."

If demand rises, experts expect that more of the prominent switch vendors will support third-party network operating systems.

"Arista Networks has already said publicly that if they get enough customer demand they would support bare metal," Grossner says. "The new CEO of Cisco made a similar statement -- that if enough of their customers ask for it, they'll do something about bare-metal [and] white box switches."

Benefits of bare metal

Reliability and support are nonnegotiable requirements for any network engineer, and some contend that open switches can provide greater reliability -- in a manner of speaking -- than proprietary ones. For the price of one traditional switch from Cisco, an enterprise can purchase at least four open switches and affordably keep multiple spares or redundant pairs on hand.

When a proprietary switch fails, the vendor offers to ship some replacement parts. But having to wait for those to arrive can be costly if it causes downtime. Just two hours of network downtime could cost tens of thousands of dollars, says Noah Mehl, a lead architect at Combined Public Communications, which provides inmate phone services at prisons and correctional facilities.

"Even if one switch dies, I just remove it and replace it with one of the other three," says Mehl, who uses Pica8's open switches in his network.

White-box vs. bare-metal: What's the difference?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they don't mean the same thing. The term bare-metal switch refers to open hardware -- often, but not always, purchased directly from an original equipment manufacturer -- that has the ability to support various third-party network operating systems. They have no operating system loaded on them at the time of purchase.

In comparison, a white-box switch is a switch that comes with a third-party operating system already installed. The term refers to a complete package, sold as a single product typically under one brand.

Another way of thinking about it is all white-box switches run on bare-metal switches, but not all bare-metal switches are white-box.

Bare-metal switch proponents like Mehl contend that not only is reliability easier and cheaper to achieve with open switches but also that support can be done in-house more often. That's because many third-party operating systems that run on bare-metal switches are based on Linux, a platform that server technicians know inside and out.

Because the switches use an open system, these admins can troubleshoot and manage them using standard, Linux-based server tools they already have. That translates into less time waiting for a vendor to process a help desk ticket or ship replacement parts.

This architecture also leads to other benefits for bare-metal switches in the enterprise. One is improving automation, innovation and agility in the data center.

"For many enterprises, the team running the data center comes from the IT side, so there is no reason why a switch should be provisioned differently than a server," says IHS' Grossner. "They really want to manage them like servers, and they want them to be programmable in Linux because that's what they know. White-box [and] bare-metal switches offer that option."

Network engineers also want more flexibility, says Grossner. Bare-metal switching allows them to select a specialized operating system according to their needs. Some network engineers may choose Cumulus Networks' platform, Cumulus Linux, because they want to program in Linux. Others might choose Big Switch Networks' operating system because they like the command-line interface or prefer to use OpenFlow.

At Fairmount Santrol, Foy is looking to learn more about bare-metal switches but acknowledges that it is hard to say whether the company would adopt them even in the next year or two.

Fairmount Santrol has a lot of HP switches currently deployed that have ability to support third-party network operating systems if the company wanted to go down that path. These switches are highly distributed, and taking a white-box approach could make it more affordable to expand or improve the network in far-flung mining and drilling sites.

"The switches are in remote areas. Cost is a factor because port utilization is very low. You could have only a couple ports in use per switch," Foy says.

Next Steps

Back to basics: A guide to bare-metal switches

White box vs. bare metal: What's the difference?

Bare-metal switches move closer to mainstream

This was last published in August 2015

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