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Could open switches be a game-changer for your network?

Before selecting campus edge switches, consider evaluating open switches -- versus switches from a traditional vendor -- and learn the benefits of this open networking approach.

Although open networking may seem new, the merchant silicon at the heart of the new open switches has been around a long time and is likely already part of your networks.

A brief history: When the first LAN switches appeared in the early 1990s, each vendor designed and fabricated the custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) needed to provide the switching function. Many vendors touted their ASICs as the secret ingredient that made their products better than their competitors'. But ASIC design was time-consuming, and custom ASIC fabrication was expensive, especially in such relatively limited quantities.

Enter companies such as Broadcom, Marvell and Mellanox Technologies, among others. These suppliers began building high-performance chips that could be delivered much more quickly -- and cheaply -- than the proprietary ASICs the switch developers were offering.

Silicon suppliers also made their ASIC interfaces available to third parties, fueled in part by the Open Compute Project, which Facebook co-founded in 2013. Although OCP's efforts focused primarily on hyperscale data center architectures, ideas of how open networking might be deployed throughout networking began to gain traction.

Essentially, open networking can really be defined in a single word: disaggregation. The LAN switch hardware and software are separated, and the individual components are designed, built and sold by separate vendors.

The beauty of open networking is that vendors can focus more acutely on a single product. Hardware vendors can concentrate on ways to make a better box, and network operating system vendors don't have to spend resources on building the switching engine. They can assume it's there, it works and its software interfaces are documented.

This software-first approach means that open networking vendors were really able to set aside the baggage of decades of switching OS and take a fresh start. What we get is a re-envisioned networking approach rather than just a less-expensive copy of, say, Cisco IOS.

As a buyer of edge switches, you need to understand whether open networking is a game-changing opportunity for your deployment or a path to be avoided. Let's examine a few of the considerations for selecting open switches versus switches from a traditional vendor.

The brave new world of vendors, support

Traditional switch vendors are able to charge more because customers have limited choices. If they like the hardware, they have to buy the software. If they buy the software, they have to pay whatever support costs the vendor requires (although some traditional vendors include free support).

As a buyer of edge switches, you need to understand whether open networking is a game-changing opportunity for your deployment or a path to be avoided.

Unbundling the hardware from the software represents a greater choice among components and thus better total cost of ownership. That said, there are other considerations with open switches, particularly associated with technical support. There's no question that support scenarios and responsibilities can become more complicated with open networking. With traditional vendors, there's one number to call to have issues addressed. With open networking, you will have multiple vendors, and, as a result, resolving problems might take more time and cause more headaches. The question that you need to answer before committing to an open network plan is whether those options are worse, better or just different.

The biggest adjustment for enterprise buyers may very well be just getting used to dealing with a new set of vendors. While there are some vendors that straddle both traditional and open networking -- selling and supporting both hardware and software -- most open networking suppliers will focus only on one of those elements.

There are certainly cost advantages to buying open switches. Feature sets can be more comprehensive, and, depending on the software underlying the switch, it can often be customized to meet a company's particular needs. Software can also be updated more quickly, which means new capabilities can be added as network connectivity requirements change.

Ultimately, how much of a role open networking might play in your deployment's edge switch design will depend on the needs of your business and network. Before making a final decision, carefully evaluate your requirements and make sure the vendors you consider can supply the capabilities you need.

A future article in this series will take a closer look at suppliers of open switches.

This was last published in May 2019

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