Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches
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Similar to the open source trend stirring in the server market, the idea of using bare-metal switches, also known as white-box switches, for greater flexibility and a choice of software is starting to catch on.
White-box switching growth is significantly outpacing the overall vendor-based Ethernet switch market, thanks to high demand from companies with hyperscale data centers, and from cloud and hosting providers, according to a recent report by Redwood City, Calif.-based Dell'Oro Group. Despite the fact that large-scale players account for only a small portion of the switch market's target buyer, these providers are buying white-box Ethernet switches in bulk. As a result, revenue jumped up 18% in 2013 from 2012, said Alan Weckel, report author and vice president of Ethernet switch market research for the Dell'Oro Group.
Bare-metal switches decouple hardware from software and allow third-party software to be used on the switch -- a departure from the traditional vendor-based switch offering that comes with pre-loaded proprietary software.
"Now, the user has a choice of box and software and can pay for each separately based on what they need," said Cliff Grossner, directing analyst of data center and cloud for Campbell, Calif.-based Infonetics Research Inc. "This drives costs down while also promoting flexibility and innovation, because now, the operating system is on an open platform."
White-box switch vs. branded switch: Decoupling software from hardware
Large companies with hyperscale data center needs are seeing the value in white-box switching because of the ability to pick and choose features and software. The white-box trend can also help providers differentiate themselves by building their own software stacks on top of the hardware.
Dell is paving the way for other networking vendors to get in on the bare-metal switching market, making the same choice that providers enjoy more accessible for enterprises. The company recently partnered with Cumulus Networks to offer Cumulus' Linux-based operating system on Dell's new bare-metal switch offerings. Dell is taking a slightly different approach to the original device manufacturer's standard white-box switch methods, however. Rather than just buying empty switches, customers will still receive support from Dell. They will also be able to use any operating system they prefer down the road because Dell's new switches -- the S4810 and the S6000 -- are based on merchant silicon, according to Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management and marketing at Dell.
"This strategy is a big differentiator, especially for cloud and Web technology companies that have different requirements," Joshipura said. "With this approach, users will have openness at various levels of the stack and be able to develop their own applications and code while not being at the mercy of a vertically integrated vendor."
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Dell's approach will also help hesitant enterprises get on board with bare-metal switching, Grossner said. "If I'm a typical enterprise, there's no way I want to take the chance. What if there is a problem? How will I get support? Only large providers that had the right resources used to be able to take those risks, but Dell's white box with full support is changing the game."
Facebook, a leader in the Open Compute Project for efficient server and data center designs, has not yet deployed a white-box switch strategy within its own data centers, but it is starting to drive bare-metal switching initiatives inside Open Compute. Facebook recently shared contributed switch designs from Intel Corp., Broadcom Corp. and Mellanox Technologies that are being evaluated, said Omar Baldonado, manager on Facebook's network engineering team.
"The disaggregation of hardware and software -- we like to call them software-agnostic switches -- is just like what we've done on the server side. It allows companies to innovate on not only the hardware side, but with software too," Baldonado said.
Enterprise white-box switch adoption may hinge on ROI
While large cloud providers have the resources necessary to handle replacements and infrastructure maintenance on their own, it's going to take longer for bare-metal switching to become an option for enterprises. Vendor support tied to white-box offerings will help.
"It will take a long time for the replacement, warranty and comfort to be in place for smaller companies to pick a white box, and that's just the hardware side," Dell'Oro's Weckel said. "It will also take millions of lines of code and thousands of hours of interoperability testing for an open source version of every piece of software to be in place."
Even though interest in white-box switching is growing among enterprises, bare-metal switches might not give smaller environments the same return on investment (ROI). "White-box [switches] work very well at a very large scale, but as you get smaller in size, the ROI just isn't there with the current solutions on the market," Weckel said.
Similar to the way enterprises are starting to show interest in OEM offerings for servers, however, the bare-metal switching trend will eventually trickle down from large-scale providers, Facebook's Baldonado said. "I think we will eventually see the same interest from enterprises with networking products."