White box switches and routers with independent network operating systems can offer significant benefits in terms of cost and operational flexibility. Leading hyperscale cloud providers have widely deployed white box switches in their large data centers. Enterprise IT can consider white box networking deployment for greenfield data centers and as tactical deployments with specific network upgrades.
White box networking provides the ability to deploy generic, commodity off-the-shelf switches or routers with an independent network operating system (NOS) that drives Layer 2 and Layer 3 intelligence. The NOS can come preinstalled on the switch or router or be purchased separately. Suppliers of white box network hardware include Accton Technology, Celestica, Edgecore Networks, Foxconn Technology Group, Lanner Electronics and Quanta, among others -- and they all use the same Broadcom chipsets.
NOS suppliers for white box hardware include Arrcus, Kaloom, Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, Pluribus Networks and SnapRoute. Open source or standards-driven NOS options include Microsoft's Software for Open Networking in the Cloud, Facebook Open Switching System -- from Facebook and Open Compute Project -- and AT&T's Disaggregated Network Operating System.
White box networking benefits
The primary benefit of white box networking is the potential for significantly lower purchasing costs -- or Capex -- of the combined white box and NOS, as compared to branded switch and router products from Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Arista and others. In addition to lower purchasing costs, white box networking may offer some of the following benefits:
- ease of deployment;
- customization with open APIs and links to popular DevOps tools; and
- improved network management and automation.
Status of white box networking
White box switching is widely deployed in the data centers of the hyperscale cloud providers, which typically employ their own internally developed operating systems -- like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, for example. Other entities that have deployed white box switches include tier 2 cloud providers, large service providers, telecom operators and large enterprise organizations with greenfield data center builds.
White box switching can also be deployed in campus and branch locations, although these use cases are immature and have received limited market attention. The majority of enterprise IT customers continue to buy traditional Ethernet switches as a bundled appliance from their favorite network equipment provider.
White box edge routers
White box networking and related NOSes support extensive routing functionality. Enterprises and service providers can flexibly and inexpensively deploy white box routers at various locations, such as internet peering points and the edge of the network.
White box routing is in an earlier deployment stage as compared to white box switching. Doyle Research expects the white box edge routing use case to mature over the next two to three years and begin to attract broad deployment among cloud and communications service providers.
Key questions for enterprise IT buyers
White box networking is in its early stages of deployment in some large enterprise accounts. Currently, it is primarily a way for enterprise IT to deploy massive switching capacity of 25 GB or 100 GB at lower costs in new data center implementations. Key questions for enterprise buyers contemplating white box networking include:
- What is the primary use case for white box networking? Consider, for example, the switching capacity for new data centers.
- What is the cost delta between white box and traditional options? This should be a large savings.
- Which suppliers will provide the integrated white box hardware and related NOS?
- What NOS will you use for this deployment? While most white box hardware is similar in design, network operating systems for white boxes vary widely in capabilities.
- Who will provide service and support for the white box networking implementation?
Pick the right project and partner
The variety of white box networking options available represents new choices for enterprise IT, especially with regard to new data center deployments. A deployment of NOS plus white box switches can yield substantial cost and flexibility benefits in the data center. White box networking can also be deployed as edge routers and for branch networks.
The wide variety of network operating systems to drive white box hardware creates a challenge for enterprise IT to select the best option. No single NOS has gained significant traction, and many NOSes rely on smaller suppliers or on open source. Picking the right projects and the right partner is critical for enterprise deployment of white box networking. IT leaders should start with trial projects to carefully examine white box networking benefits in the data center and work closely with integration partners.