Understanding White Box Networking and Open Network Operating Systems

For decades, an organization bought its network switching products from a single vendor such as Cisco. In most cases, that organization’s data center became 100% dedicated to that networking vendor and it was almost impossible for another vendor to gain a foothold in the data center. Traditional networking today faces challenges from white box networking, open network operating systems, and software defined networking. All the industry sometimes uses these terms interchangeably, however there are important differences that IT needs to understand in order to implement a more open network strategy.

The Rise of Merchant Silicon

In the traditional networking model, the vendor’s switch hardware came with a proprietary network operating system that only worked on the vendor’s specific hardware. In the early days, most switch vendors developed their own custom switching ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) to deliver the features needed and to differentiate themselves from other vendors. However, in the past 5 years, Broadcom has built a powerful family of general purpose switching ASICs, known as “merchant silicon”, that have radically simplified the process of building network switches.

Over the past five years, the switching market has also evolved significantly and merchant silicon has become as powerful as the early custom ASICs. In fact, so much so that it has become more cost-effective to build next generation switches with these merchant silicon chips rather than developing custom ASICs. These powerful ASICs deliver the important networking capabilities that many modern high-performance networks require.

Today most vendors that offer network switches use merchant silicon from Broadcom. In fact, these ASICs are so powerful and feature rich that many of the traditional switching vendors also use the Broadcom chips to build their branded switching hardware. Most switches on the market today have a common chip set, and when combined with a common network operating system, customers can mix and match switches from various vendors.

What is Disaggregation?

Traditionally, data center products were a combination of hardware and software that customers had to buy together as an integrated solution. Disaggregation decouples those components and enables IT to mix and match them. Disaggregation enables organizations to drive down data center costs while increasing flexibility. In the compute segment, disaggregation’s starting point, IT can select a variety of operating systems like Linux, Windows or VMware and run it on server hardware from a multitude of vendors.

The disaggregation phenomenon is also taking hold in the network switching market, commonly referred to as “Open Networking” or White Box Switches. A number of companies now offer “bare metal” switches which they build from the same standard components with similar capabilities to traditional networking switches. Contract manufacturers are also building networking switches, even though the logos are different, with the same components and same merchant silicon.

Why White Box Networking

The white box networking concept offers a significant costs savings over traditional networking devices. White box switches typically cost 50-60% less than a comparative traditional switch, a delta large enough to capture the attention of even the most skeptical IT planner, especially given the relative equality in features and capabilities. In addition to cost savings, white box networking also provides the potential for vendors to bring additional innovations to market.

The Network Operating System Enables Open Networking

As organizations move from just the cost savings of white box switches, to the complete hardware flexibility offered by Open Networking, those organizations need to create or acquire a network operating system to run the various switches in the environment. Similar to how an IT planner will decide on an operating system to install on its various server hardware platforms, they also need to decide on a single network operating system (NOS) for their various white box network switches. The NOS enables the organization to customize the solution to meet its needs.

In many cases, the white box switch hardware companies provide a rudimentary NOS with their switch. The design of these basic NOS options essentially allow them to manage just one switch or only manage switches with that vendor’s logo on it, which breaks the Open Networking concept. Increasingly, white box switch vendors provide the basic NOS for single switch management and offer a number of NOS software vendor’s solutions, which can work with multiple switches. Still other white box switch vendors sell only the hardware and assume the customer will supply software.

The Open Networking business model parallels the server business model. There is a variety of ways to purchase the product but in the end, while the hardware is important, the software (NOS) is critical. NOS vendors compete for IT attention and they use features like ease of management, ease of aggregation, automation and other features to differentiate themselves from each other. The competition, which drives innovation, means that data centers built on Open Networking can expect a more feature rich networking environment at significantly lower prices.

Selecting the Right Network Operating System

All NOS solutions deliver basic layer 2 and layer 3 switching and routing. The differences between solutions lies in the advance features that each provide. Most data centers for example, will find it important for the NOS to stay up and operational through various outages but not all NOSs provide enterprise class resiliency. Data Centers may also want to evolve into a software-defined network (SDN), in which case those organizations will want the integration of advanced networking services, like automation and integrated monitoring. Only a few of the Open Networking (or white box) NOS solutions can evolve into SDN.

Other key features to consider are

  • Fabric Architecture to enable multiple switches to act as one
  • Network Virtualization to segment and secure the network
  • Integrate network operations and services with virtualization platforms like VMware
  • API driven Network Automation

StorageSwiss Take

IT planners looking to modernize their network need to aim for a network experience that is more flexible and automated. For many, the eventual end goal is a software-defined networking architecture. The first step for those IT planners is white box networking and the network operating system is the most critical aspect of that step. White box networking promises to drive down networking costs significantly but if IT planners don’t place the right amount of attention on the network operating system then the strategy may end up hitting a brick wall. The right NOS selection brings not only the cost savings of white box switches but also assures optimal network operation with future innovation and automation previously thought impossible.

Sponsored by Pluribus Networks

Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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