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The white box switching market gets a closer look

Following years of development, is the potential of the white box switching market finally being realized?

The excitement surrounding the white box switching market has remained steady over the past few years. And while...

the concept of using low-cost, commodity hardware with a wide choice of networking software is far from new, there were a couple of significant real-world cases that piqued the interest of many within the IT community. The first was when major technology firms, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, opted to forgo the use of traditional switch vendor routing and switching options; instead, they set out to build their own. The thinking was custom switches could be built and specifically configured to meet the exact needs of the organization.

The second case is the software-defined networking (SDN) movement. The introduction of SDN architectures gave enterprise organizations a glimpse at what automation and orchestration capabilities could accomplish without the need of custom hardware. With SDN, the software is king.

Despite the fervor and hype over the past few years, there are relatively few instances where run-of-the-mill organizations dropped their traditional switch infrastructure in favor of white box switches. And the reason for this is clear: Up until this point, there have been too many drawbacks that make white box switching less appealing when compared with traditional switch vendor offerings. But, as time goes by, many of these roadblocks are being removed. Let's take a look at a few.

Flexibility, programmability driving growth in white box switching market

This sense of unease is fading, thanks to the fact that several big-name network manufacturing companies are jumping on the white box switch bandwagon.

First, we are seeing an increasing number of business drivers that require software flexibility and programmability that can't be found on closed-source switches. Companies are finding they can use white box switches -- along with other management and network-aware tools -- to intelligently and optimally route traffic for remote users and remote sites with increased control, visibility and security. This approach, software-defined WAN, is currently thought to be the spark that will eventually lead to a complete end-to-end SDN architecture in the enterprise. Another business driver: large-scale internet of things (IoT) projects. Network architects realize they can benefit from the ability to program at a more granular level, using white box hardware and software APIs, to optimize the influx of IoT data flowing from sensors now in operation.

Many enterprise-class organizations grapple with the concern over abandoning tried-and-true network switches for little-known hardware manufacturers and third-party operating systems. This sense of unease is fading, thanks to the fact that several big-name network manufacturing companies are jumping on the white box switch bandwagon. Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks are three companies that have traditionally provided network infrastructure equipment to customers using the common, closed-source hardware and software appliance model. But over the past year or two, each of these companies has started to embrace the white box switching market by either decoupling its software and selling hardware sans OS, or by selling its hardware preinstalled with a third-party network operating system (NOS) -- known in the industry as a brite box. Additionally, all three companies offer support services, including phone and online support, access to firmware updates and hardware replacement with various service-level agreements for specific white box and brite-box hardware. So, in some cases, you can have all the benefits and support found with traditional switch appliances with the ability to use the NOS of your choice.

Management hurdles must be overcome

Finally, there is the stumbling block associated with becoming comfortable with handling the day-to-day management tasks of a lesser-known NOS. Until recently, very few network professionals had any experience with NOSes like those from Big Switch and Cumulus Networks. This is especially true when compared with the number of network administrators who have experience configuring switches from the likes of Cisco, Brocade, Huawei and Arista Networks. But, as time goes on, more and more engineers are gaining exposure to these types of third-party SDN operating systems -- and finding they're not terribly different from most other switching platforms out there. So, while the pool of capable white box NOS network administrators still isn't anywhere close to other closed-source vendors, it's getting better all the time.

It's safe to say tremendous strides are being made to get white box switching up to a level where it makes sense for ordinary enterprise IT departments to begin viewing them as a viable alternative. But, at the same time, the white box switching advocates must work to accelerate additional advancements before the window of opportunity closes. Companies such as Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Arista have had ample time to listen to their customers in order to rework their current hardware and software models so they are more flexible and SDN-friendly. The clock on the white box switching market ticks on.

Next Steps

White box switching understood

Who's who of white box switching vendors

Basics of white box switching

This was last published in September 2016

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What do you think of the trends in the white box switching market?
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Hi Andrew - great article. However, one key missing roadblock has been going from a device to a network. Switches by themselves aren't terribly useful. While most vendors have focused on one piece of the puzzle (usually, the easiest, the NOS), the user is still left to cable the boxes together into a network (according to rigid rules), configure every port with a protocol, manage them all, etc. And then getting to operate the network, you're back to a device by device mindset.

Plexxi offers not only a switch NOS on white box switches, but also an elegant fabric cabling solution (we call LightRail(TM)), a controller with a workload-level abstraction (so users don't need to know about individual ports and protocols and other low-level details), and an integration platform that makes automating the network as simple as defining "If-that-then-else" statements.. Everything except the cabling (and the switches of course) are pure software, and this finally makes whitebox switch usable for folks trying to create data center networks.
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