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The Path to White-box Networking – Part 2

15th Sep 2016

In the first part of this blog we looked at the building blocks and the ecosystem behind the open networking or disaggregated model. Now let’s examine the tradeoffs between choosing a traditional vendor vs. a white box network and the potential applications using this model.

1. Cost Saving vs. Flexibility

In the early days of white-box switching the potential cost savings were often the first thing network engineers heard or read about this new approach. While cost savings and Capex are key considerations for any network build-out they are only part of the benefits of this model.

The greater value lies in its ability to make networks more programmable and automated. But as interest in the concept of network programmability grows, it becomes clear that cost savings are one of the less interesting aspects of white-box switches. In many cases making the network more automated, programmable and flexible, turns out to be more valuable and hence provide greater control over the network for changing business needs. That is the premise of software defined networks or data centers.

2. Expanding or scaling the network

The second key aspect is the process of scaling the network. In the past, networks needed bigger boxes with more ports for an expansion. This not only makes the network more complex to manage but also reduces the uniformity of the architecture. Instead what we need are low cost building blocks which can be replicated across to create a large scale network. This increases redundancy in the network and also makes it easier to upgrade in future.

3. The choice of NOS

The choice of software or network operating system is critical to the success of this architecture. The right NOS can provide a seamless migration path to transition between the current networks to future architectures which are software defined. The NOS must also be modular and scalable to support TOR, Leaf, Spine switches and increasing interface speeds. Finally, we need a single NOS which can support not just today’s data center needs but also tomorrows service provider features and architectures.

Applications of White Box:

Customization: The ability to customize the operating system to provide high performance is crucial for some lines of business. Developers can customize the system to limit unneeded processes and concentrate the processing power of the switch on the important features. Also technology such as containers provide the capability to run business specific logic in a secure environment. This leads to a lean, custom switch platform that provides peak performance for a narrow range of uses.

Use Cases: What are some of the potential use cases where white-box switch based architectures are compelling?

Analyzing big data to derive insights is common to many enterprises irrespective of their size. The amount of data is increasing from various touch points for a business and the kind of networks which can scale based easily at a lower cost point and provide the flexibility to insert a custom business logic is an advantage. Solutions combining the advantages of the white box model along with big data processing applications will be key for many such enterprises.

The first switching platforms supported data center TOR-LEAF-SPINE architectures with limited buffers and memory. With the advent of next generation switching silicon new applications with carrier features such as Ethernet OAM, MPLS, VPLS, deep buffered elements for the data center cloud and advanced network functions virtualization (NFV) infrastructure solutions can be enabled. Again the role of NOS is crucial in being able to take advantage of these capabilities and to provide a carrier grade reliability.

Evolving Models:

The financial and functional gap between white-Box and traditional switching has opened the door for new approaches and business models. These new approaches aim to bridge the gap between white-box and traditional switching, making it more palatable to bring hyper scale switching concepts to the mainstream. If this disaggregated model becomes more acceptable it is likely that the focus will shift to NOS or the software vendors looking to differentiate their network architectures and gain competitive advantage.

Here are some deployment models,

  • ODMs coming out with a brite-box or white-box hardware on which NOS from a supported software vendor can be loaded
  • Network switching vendors allowing their softwareto run on white-box hardware
  • Network switching vendors allowing othervendors’ software to run on their hardware
  • Systems integrators, who combine the switching hardware and software, deliver it to end-user organizations, and thus become the vendor of record

Other potential models will evolve as adoption of white-boxes become prevalent.

Here are five paths to transition to a white-box or brite-box network.

1. Simplify the environment. Traditional networks are filled with legacy constraints that make the network difficult to manage. Today’s network infrastructures need to be simple and scale fast. This is where white-boxes are an ideal replacement to solve specific problems and simplify the network architecture.

2. Start with a hybrid or green-field deployment. You don’t need to rip off your existing network. Start with a small portion of the network and scale as you get comfortable with the capabilities of the model.

3. Transition to a SDN network: It’s not just about lower costs and avoiding vendor lock-in. The key value of SDN and white-box networking is to improve the end-user productivity and revenue growth. For many businesses today the network is one of the key differentiators in the services they provide.

4. Support Model: Choosing a support model which meets your needs is key to initial deployments. Many ODMs provide integrated support for both hardware and the installed network operation system. The other option is to choose a reseller or a system integrator who can provide full support to get comfortable with the first deployment.

5. Enable orchestration. The data center is more than just a network. In addition to configuring the network, the applications should be able to control the configuration of other infrastructure such as storage and servers. Initially, this is best done through an orchestration solution that removes much of the complexity of tweaking and tuning the specific configurations of the underlying technology.

Today’s businesses need fluid networks which are open to changes in hardware and software and enables services on-demand. Network decision makers can reduce cost, improve management and enable long-term innovation using “white-box” switches versus traditional networking approaches. However, white-box networking may not be for everyone in the immediate term but given that the model will mature over time with better multi-vendor interoperability it does offer a credible alternative in the long term to traditional vendor networking switches.