The debate about white boxes and whether they can supplant branded networking products lingers on. The issue over to what degree white boxes will be relevant in enterprise networking raged across several different sessions at last month’s Open Network User Group (ONUG) Fall 2016 conference.
While there’s not much agreement over the ultimate validity of white boxes (also, sadly, known as “brite boxes”) in traditional enterprise data centers, there is some consensus regarding what has held back adoption thus far. The first issue is that most IT organizations simply don’t have the engineering skills required to build and deploy networking solutions.
Do Admins Want White Boxes?
Yan Filyurin, network scientist for Bloomberg, told conference attendees that most IT organizations are not inclined to take on that much responsibility for building, deploying, and managing white boxes running network software in the enterprise.
“You have to remember: Most network administrators are really power users,” said Filyurin. “They’re not network engineers.”
The next biggest issue involves the total cost of ownership (TCO) of white box solutions. While vendors initially presented these offerings as being cheaper than proprietary offerings, Filyurin said that whatever enhanced flexibility an IT organization might gain needs to be weighed against the total TCO associated with maintaining a white box networking environment.
Cheriton Chimes In
Dr. David Cheriton, a computer science professor at Stanford University (as well as a founder of Arista Networks and, more recently, Apstra), told attendees the networking industry is focused on the wrong issue. Instead of trying to painstakingly create lower-level, open-source technologies that might not be adopted for a decade or more, the IT industry needs to focus more on interoperability that promotes higher levels of automation.
Given the rate at which businesses such as Google are employing new technologies to disrupt entire industries, Cheriton argued that waiting for open networking committees to develop and validate networking technologies is “insane.”
“The need is urgent, and organizations can’t wait for standards,” he said. “Right now, many organizations are facing annihilation or automation.”
Chips Could Fuel White Boxes
Of course, not everyone at the ONUG conference shared those assessments. Dr. Jennifer Rexford, chair of the computer science department at Princeton University, told attendees that the arrival of commercial networking chipsets will soon drive a massive wave of networking innovation.
In fact, Dr. Cliff Grossner, research director for IHS Market Technology, said his firm’s research suggests the industry is at a tipping point in terms of adoption of open networking technologies in the enterprise.
“The market is not stalled – it’s just now reaching a tipping point,” he said. “The market’s been waiting on processors such as Tomahawk from Broadcom.”
In addition, Grossner noted, the IT services community in the form of a channel is still relatively immature. As solution providers across the channel come up to speed on open networking, he said, adoption will accelerate.
Jim Duffy, an industry analyst with 451 Research, concurred with Grossner: “Open top-of-rack switches will trickle down to the campus and the branch. Software will be the only differentiator.”
In the meantime, white box solutions will continue to find their way into the enterprise for specific use cases. For example, Dominic Wilde, vice president and general manager of the data center networking business for Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), noted that white boxes are a good alternative for out-of-band management applications, methods of steering traffic in specific directions, and inspecting packets more deeply in support of a security application.
But, Wilde noted: “White boxes are not a panacea for every problem. We need clarity of purpose.”
Ultimately, white boxes will find their way into the data center. It just may not be at the level of adoption many vendors currently expect.