• 12/20/2013
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Whiteboxes Are In Your Future

Open-source hardware is growing fast, and will soon penetrate enterprise storage. Here's why you'll see more inexpensive whiteboxes in 2014.

We are all used to Linux. As a whitebox experiment, with open-source software and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, Linux has become a mainstay of the IT industry. Even so, most deployers of Linux buy a brand name computer from the HPs and Dells of the world.

Storage has generally been more proprietary, except for the network-attached storage space, where add-ons to the Linux distributions provide CIFS and NFS support. Storage is a bit more like the mainframe industry of old, with expensive boxes leading the market in the enterprise.

One of the issues that is bearing strongly on the future of storage is the price of a terabyte on a RAID appliance versus a retail SATA drive. The large disparity is reaching a tipping point, at which IT professionals ask what they are paying for.

This instability in the value proposition is getting additional pushes from solid state drives (SSDs) that require fewer but faster arrays, from all-flash products that subordinate the arrays to second tier storage, and from open-source storage software that allows COTS-based storage appliances to be constructed. All of these are pressuring the Big Iron makers, who are becoming more aggressive on pricing, especially in the low end of the enterprise and the mid-range market.

But there's more pressure, and it's not just on storage. The success of cloud computing is creating new system manufacturers, such as Google and Amazon. They design their own hardware and software, using COTS to a great extent, and cherry-picking code to mix with their own developments.

These companies are huge users of gear, but they do what the other vendors like IBM and HP do. They have the hardware built in China. And that brings the next complication to the equation. Those Chinese ODMs have grown to a huge size, piggybacking off the traditional vendors and the new cloud service providers. Now, they are looking to enter the US end-user market with branded products. 

So where does that leave the industry? Savvy CIOs are realizing that they can bypass the middleman and do as Amazon does. They can buy direct from the ODMs. Facebook has even placed its designs into the public domain to make this easier to do, and several vendors offer labelled versions of whiteboxes at very aggressive prices.

We are about to see storage hitting the same path, with appliances running OpenStack Swift. Beyond that, Ceph and Red Hat will bring unified storage boxes that will handle all the major storage protocols. These are all well-tested code sets, and deployment into enterprise environments is a reasonable risk. Gartner even had a session at this month's Data Center Conference entitled “Building Your Own Storage: Can You Mimic the Big Cloud Providers?”

Networking is not immune. The hardware complexity of switches has dropped to the level that they too can be “whiteboxed,” and we can expect inexpensive 10-gigabit Ethernet switches to hit the market in 2014. Again, YouTube is offering a design to the open platform community.

In fact, we will see a lot of inexpensive gear in 2014. Some will be less than stellar in quality, but, by the nature of COTS and its standardization -- and the easy availability of reference designs from Intel and others -- we can expect most of it to work well and perform to specification. 

The risks in going down the whitebox path are less technical than logistical. Newbie companies won't have a well-organized support operation, for instance. Hotlines might end up in Cantonese, too. The more reputable companies (some of the multi-billion dollar ODMs) will get this sorted pretty quickly, and they will leverage their track records with cloud providers and OEMs, so likely will be good suppliers for the whitebox model.

Old loyalties die hard, but the traditional US system and storage vendors face tougher times as their own suppliers become their competitors. That's why Dell went private, and why it wants to convert to a software and services model. That was the path IBM successfully chose when the mainframe was “Unixed.”

There'll be a whole lot of strategies put together to use whiteboxes, ranging from specific projects to low-tier storage, and departmental systems to cloud rollouts. What fits will be a question of your organization's risk aversion, technical confidence, and cost pressures. The one thing that's certain is that you'll be looking at new platform suppliers next year, and in five years will have found a portfolio of suppliers that you trust.


White box storage

While I can't say I'm opposed to the idea I'd really have to take a close look at any white box offering before diving in no matter how inexpensively they can deliver storage space.  I've used NAS devices by lesser known branded companies and the issues, lack of support and all around wacky fixes were just too much to take.  With storage costs from the big vendors dropping every year I'm sure this will help drive prices down but eventually we'll get to a point where cheaper is just cheaper not more cost effective.

Re: White box storage

@SaneIT, The support issue is definitely on the table for new vendors, especially foreign suppliers. On the other hand, Quamta and other big ODMs are delivering huge quantities to Google and Amazon, so one assumes they have high quality. I see a period with a lot of suppliers and a bit of confusion, then a period of consolidation, just as the SMB NAS market has evolved.

Re: White box storage

Is this mostly a big company opportunity -- one that only big companies with the IT staff expertise to piece these together can tap? 

Re: White box storage

@Chris, the big companies certainly have the team to do this, but I expect the usual spectrum of VARs and integrators will build the units, and then sell them on. This could be described as a multi-level selling opportunity for the ODMs, ranging from cloud firms to large enterprises to VARS to end-users.

Re: White box storage

@Jim, yes you are right and this pattern has all the hallmarks of the product life cycle theory. I feel that innovation in hardware is slowing down and that's part of the reason why companies don't want to be in the hardware business anymore, on the other hand software has a lot of room for innovation. Add into the mix that competitors do not have proper frameworks for IP, and the advantage becomes clear.

Re: White box storage

It's a bit reminiscent of what happened with TV's, though I see Foxconn is planning to build large-scren TVs in the US.

Re: White box storage

Television have been reinvented many times and I guess the next company that manages to reinvent the Television will be able to manufacture it in any economy (developed or developing) because innovation carries a lot of value and it can easily offset advantages that would be gained if the cost of labor was lower.

Re: White box storage

The cost of a product is the componenets, the labor to assemble it, plus transportation and inventory carrying costs. You reach a point where the logistics costs exceed the savings from the cheap labor pool. This is especially true as the labor content drops, and robots do the building. This will lead to quite a bit of onshoring over time, such as the Foxconn deal for TVs.

Re: White box storage

Excellently put and I see all this as creating a net increase in efficiency. And by following these models that have already been proven to work can be a good place for anyone wanting to step into the market -- any firms from any economy.

Re: White box storage

@Brian, I think you are cirrect. Increasing oil prices and a smaller gap in labor costs are already starting to tip the balance in some businesses.

Re: White box storage

Exactly, and I do not hope to see or expect oil prices to be dropping anything soon because if that happens without new oil fields being discovered it would mean that innovations in how energy is being used on a global scale has stopped.

Re: White box storage

I'm not saying that support will be totally non-existant but the levels of support and expectations are often very different when a company is selling a product as a white box solution.  That isn't always bad but if you're expecting the same amount of attention that your current hardware provider is giving you then it might be a bit of culture shock.  I see it as the difference between mainstream applications with a large developer behind them and open source software projects that require a lot more leg work on your end to fix issues.

Re: White box storage

@SaneIT, while generally true that branded boxes from traditional suppliers get good support, the whitebox community benefits from the quality and interoperability of the components. If the intergrator buys from good suppliers like Quanta fro instance, the chances are the box will work well.

There is the question of support, but my experience is this is often a case of esoteric peripherals or OS other than LInux or Windows. The community forums for the mainstream solutions tend to clear up many issues.

That leaves the occasional blunder that even big providers make, such as a BIOS or EFI error. This is an area where, perversely, even the traditional OEMs have to go back to the same Chinese resources, and often they have the same "lost-in-translation" issues.

Bottom line is if you use reputables vendors' components, there's less difference than you think.

Of course, if HP or Dell is integrating apps and the rest, too, the level of support ought to be better than if you do it yourself, so whiteboxes aren't free.

Re: White box storage

A friend of mine is a lead developer for a popular Linux distro and manages package integration, etc.  He openly admits that it's impossible to cover every piece of hardware out there but he'll give you the tools to make it work for you.  I see the whitebox storage pieces moving in that direction.  I have experience with other "commodity" hardware and making it work without the manufacturer support of drivers or anything other than "good luck"  so I'm not afraid of the concept.  I just wanted to throw out there that there is a layer of support that you need consider when you go down this path. It's not all bad, in fact I think it's good to have a few things like this where your team is responsible for things at a deeper level but for a small shop with limited resources they need to be careful looking at this as the answer to their storage pricing woes.

Re: White box storage

@sanIT, I think that's a great assessment. I expect that less savvy users would pay a bit extra for support and integration by a third-party.

Re: White box storage

What I hope we see from this is third party solutions that use the white boxes but add value by building interfaces or offering superior support.  A smaller more nimble storage company could do very well if they can stay in front of current trends and offer quick response to rolling out cutting edge products. 

Re: White box storage

I agree the whitebox model seems to require a lot more IT expertise and I would expect to see far less help from the vendors. But as Jim notes, VARs and system integrators are most likely to be building these kinds of systems. And if the boxes evolve like TVs, then we'll just start throwing them away when they don't work, so there won't be any question of troubleshooting or fixing them anyway.