BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
What's the difference between bare-metal and white-box switches?
Bare-metal hardware and white-box switches are two sides of the same coin. Increased commoditization in networking, especially at scale, is giving organizations the ability to drive down costs by purchasing generic hardware. This hardware is typically based upon x86 processors and chipsets from manufactures such as Broadcom, Intel and Mellanox. These bare-metal switches may be purchased directly from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), usually in significant quantity for mass deployment.
A white-box switch can be considered a bare-metal switch with a software stack deployed over the top, either by an OEM or the end user. The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) project aims to bring standardization to bare-metal switching, bridging the gap to generic white-box switches. ONIE provides a framework that allows the administrator to deploy different network operating systems in the same way that x86 servers will accept a variety of conventional operating systems. At the moment, this may be Open Network Linux or Cumulus Networks Linux, but it is likely that other flavors will emerge to fill new niches.
As an example, Dell Inc. has made its Broadcom Trident II-based S6000 bare-metal switch available with Cumulus Network Linux as a white-box software option. The same switch is also available with Dell's native FTOS operating system as a comparatively closed configuration. Bare-metal and white-box switches widen the choice available to network buyers. They can either choose an integrated design from traditional providers such as Cisco, Dell and Juniper Networks or look to the open market. Administrators can thus select network hardware and software platforms independently, making best choices for each scenario. This flexibility may put pressure on the traditional network providers to demonstrate the difference between their value propositions and open networking/open switching. That said, there will still be a need for traditional network switches in a world where bare-metal/white-box switching is a serious deployment option. Many customers will still need a turnkey solution from a single provider. The explosion of the x86 processors and desktop operating systems stalled growth in the mainframe market, but it certainly didn't kill it or in the long term damage profits. The same scenario holds true here as well. It is my view that the market is big enough to support both schools of thought, but who ultimately becomes the niche solution remains to be seen.