A peek into white-box networking

A peek into white-box networkingThere has been a rising buzz in the past 12 months around white-box networking, which essentially decouples hardware and software to allow network administrators to buy cheaper, off-the-shelf, generic hardware.

The idea behind white-box networking is not entirely new. Original device manufacturers (ODMs) for many years have been building the physical boxes for well-known switch vendors. Vendors like Cisco take the ODM hardware and install them with their own operating system before they are rolled out for sale – often with a support contract.

What’s new is that companies can now buy the hardware without the operating system from the ODM at much lower cost compared to similar switches from traditional networking vendors. Also, there are now vendors who sell stand-alone Linux-based network operating systems.

At present, this trend of buying the hardware and software of network boxes separately is predominantly a North American phenomenon.

Exploring the option at low cost

“I think it is still worthwhile for enterprises in Hong Kong to start looking at aspects of it, even if it takes three or four years – or even longer – for whitebox networking to trickle down to the enterprise,“ said Russell Skingsley, vice president of Juniper Networks’ Asia Pacific Systems Engineering and Center of Excellence.

While other established vendors have kept white boxes at arm’s length, Juniper Networks made a big bet in the emerging trend by separating its Junos network operating system from the underlying hardware. This means Junos can now be installed in white boxes, while other software can now run on Junos hardware switches.

According to Skingsley, CIOs who are keen to see how white boxes work in their data center can make a test run without a major investment.

“They will look at sections of their networks where they feel they can make a transition. For example, they may decide that there is a certain part of the data center where they would like to test the white-box implementation.”

He added: “So the initial investment can be large or small depending on your ambition for how much of the network you want to try this on. So if you want to try out one or two of these things, and try Junos on top of it, it would fairly be a low-cost, low-risk proposition.”

Wanted: a change of mindset

Other networking insiders agree that white-box adoption among Hong Kong enterprises is still a long way off.

“Enterprises in Asia tend to be a little bit more conservative in terms of network infrastructure,” said CK Lam, director of data center fabric and virtualization for Asia Pacific at Brocade. “In my 20 years in networking, people are very wary of putting in anything very, very different and very, very new especially if the network infrastructure already works for them.”

Indeed, Brocade finds that CIOs in the region are still trying to wrap their heads around SDN and NFV – two other emergent networking technologies – after more than three years of market education.

“Adoption of these two technologies is still a little bit slow. Even though companies can see the benefits of NFV right away, they are still putting together good use cases and are doing very limited deployment.”

Brocade is an ardent proponent of SDN and NFV and has been focused on putting together what it calls “enabling technologies for the new IP”. It is adding more and more automation into its physical networking portfolio.

Lam gave another reason why there would not large scale enterprise deployment of white-box switches.

“The skillsets are quite different,” he said. “A typical network engineer for example is trained in the traditional way of managing an operating network. It is quite a big shift. So a lot of education is needed and a change of mindset is required.”

He added: “When it comes to networking, people are afraid to make big changes – a lot of customers are still struggling with ROI. What is the benefit to me in terms of dollars?”

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Telcos and Web service providers lead the way

In the US, companies with massive data centers – specifically Google and Facebook – are early adopters of white boxes. Indeed, these application-focused companies are seen to be the ones to benefit most in moving to white-box networking. Developers can customize the system to limit unneeded processes and concentrate the processing power of the switch on the important features. This leads to a lean, custom switch platform that provides peak performance for specific purposes or online services.

Noting that white-box deployments are ideal for large-scale deployments, Skingsley said that the telcos and other services providers who run a range of applications and services in big data centers are logical target customers for white-box deployments in the region.

“Some of the concepts around virtualization of services and the networ fabric stack that Facebook and Google have come up with have migrated to the telcos,” he observed. “So, telcos are looking to get the same kind of service agility that people like Facebook and Google have. So quite often, they are the next layer of customers to adapt similar concepts.”

Similar to the adoption trend of other emerging technologies, Skingsley said that white-box networking will trickle down to the enterprises that are hands-on in running their own infrastructure.

But it is not for everyone especially those used to having maintenance and service contracts from established vendors. “If they go the white-box route, they have to understand that the price they are paying is that the people who are trained to support their previous platforms are going away,” said Skingsley. “You are not going to get that level of professionals who understand the platform, you need to carefully consider that before you adopt white boxes in the enterprise. These are the things Facebook and Google do not think about too much because they do their own stacks end to end.”

Nevertheless, enterprises are still suggested to explore the white-box networking option so that they are aware of the technologies available today, and that may help them in planning their network architecture roadmap in the future.