White-Box Switches: Are You Ready?

White-box switching promises flexibility and lower costs, so should you make the leap? It depends.

Tom Hollingsworth

July 28, 2014

4 Min Read
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White-box switching is an idea that is starting to gain more traction in today's networking environments. Network administrators are beginning to see the value represented by decoupled hardware and software. But is it time for your network to make the change? Let's take a closer look at this technology trend and whether it can help your network.

White-box 101
White-box switching isn't a new idea. Original device manufacturers (ODMs) have been building hardware for well-known vendors for many years. These vendors take the ODM hardware, install their operating system, and sell the unit as a bundle, often attaching a support contract.

What's new about white-boxes switches is that the ODM will now sell the hardware directly to the customer without an operating system. Manufacturers such as Quanta Cloud Technology (QCT) and Accton offer a range of data center switches. These can be purchased at a discounted rate compared to similar switches from traditional networking vendors, due to the fact they have no operating system installed.

The second component of a white-box switch comes from vendors like Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks. These vendors offer operating systems that can run on a variety of hardware switching platforms, which allows you to install your own software on hardware that may come from different suppliers.

Purchasing the hardware and software independently of each other offers many advantages. The acquisition cost is generally lower than a traditional vendor. The flexibility of the platform also is very useful. Cumulus and Big Switch base their OSs on Linux, which gives programmers and developers the ability to customize the platform to their needs.

Making the switch
Are you ready to install white-box switches in your network? The answer to that question depends on what kind of networking needs you have.

Application-focused networking companies will quickly find the flexibility of white-box switches compelling. The ability to heavily customize the operating system to provide high performance is very important for some lines of business, such as financial trading. 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 a narrow range of uses.

Customers with highly unique support needs also benefit from white-box switches. Through the separation of software and hardware, customers can obtain different support levels for hardware and software. The lower acquisition cost for the hardware allows for spare units to be held at the ready for quick replacement. Having a software platform that is independent of the hardware also allows support engineers to debug it easily and provide relevant output to the networking team.

Finally, organizations with very strict monitoring and availability requirements may benefit greatly from the customizable aspects of white-box switching. The most recent example of this customization is the Facebook Wedge open switching platform. One of the biggest reasons why Facebook chose to develop Wedge was to have the ability to integrate the monitoring of the platform into the existing system monitoring suite.

This isn’t something that can easily be accomplished with a traditional vendor product. With a white-box switch, the OS can be reconfigured to support an existing availability monitoring suite.

Or not
Benefits aside, white-box switching isn’t a great fit for all networks. Organizations with extensive training on a specific vendor’s platform won’t see huge benefits. Customers that feel comfortable having a comprehensive support contract may feel better with the “one throat to choke” model that traditional vendors offer. It should be noted that Cumulus Networks does offer a similar support model for hardware on its hardware compatibility list.

Small- and medium-size networks won’t see the same advantages that large and hyper-scale organizations get from making the move to white-box switching. If you are buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of networking gear, saving 25% to 50% justifies any issues you might have retraining on a different user interface. If you are only purchasing three or four units, that cost savings won’t balance out with the learning curve of deploying new equipment.

While white-box software vendors have taken steps to reduce the time it takes to install their equipment, an engineer trained on traditional vendor equipment will still require time to install and configure an ODM switch with Cumulus or Big Switch software. For the SME looking to deploy white-box switches, a phased approach or pilot lab installation would be more practical today.

However, many networking shops that are looking forward to their next purchasing cycle in 12 months to 18 months would do well to investigate white-box switch options along with quotes from traditional networking vendors.

While the advantages of current white-box platforms may not be enough to tip the scales of your purchasing decision in favor of the technology, it may open your eyes to the possibilities that are available to you today and give you a roadmap to your next purchasing decision.

About the Author(s)

Tom Hollingsworth

nullTom Hollingsworth, CCIE #29213, is a former VAR network engineer with 10 years of experience working with primary education and the problems they face implementing technology solutions. He has worked with wireless, storage, and server virtualization in addition to routing and switching. Recently, Tom has switched careers to focus on technology blogging and social media outreach as a part of Gestalt IT media. Tom has a regular blog at http://networkingnerd.net and can be heard on various industry podcasts pontificating about the role technology will play in the future.

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