In the last few months, space has been filling up from people jumping on the “white box, bare metal switch” bandwagon. For example, GigaOm recently discussed Facebook’s initiative in the Open Compute Project to develop a standardized white box switch similar to the way they drove a standard around a white box server.
So what is this “white box” bandwagon, and should you elbow your way on to climb aboard? If you’re not sure, let me help break it down and let you know what it all means.
White box bare metal switch — “Box,” I get — familiar vernacular from IT people about the device: switch, router, load balancer, server, etc.
White box bare metal switch — “White box” has been a term people used to describe the non-branded manufacturers that built PCs. Many of these original design manufacturers (ODMs) ramped up production of white-box servers, and now many of them are producing white-box switches. They look just like any other switch and are assembled by the same companies that build your white-box server. To give you a sense of scale, Accton, Quanta Computer, Celestica, and Winstron all make white box switches (standard 1-RU, 48-port Ethernet switches), and as a collective, these companies have more than $200 billion of manufacturing muscle on an annual basis.
White box bare metal switch — I interpret the “bare metal” as having nothing on it, the substrate or base of the stack. Similar to the server side, “bare metal” means you just get the metal, and no operating system is installed; you need to have the expertise to work with that or have a solution integrator do it for you. The switching industry is making a similar pivot, and the manufacturing piece is done. The ODMs mentioned earlier are all able to send you as many bare metal switches as you can handle.
So why the fuss over yet another segment of the market adopting white boxes? GigaOm, as seen above, has documented the trend of mega-scale data-center providers ushering in the first wave of the networking industry moving to a broad adoption of commodity white box switches. Now, here is the catch: Where does the operating system (OS) come from? When you order a Dell laptop online, you get to choose the OS you put on the hardware, but not so with a white-box switch from an ODM.
Also, during this pivot, you will see companies adopting the white box switch as a means to go to market. Various companies in the software-defined networking (SDN) frontier can sell software standalone or sell a complete solution. We do see interest from larger organizations to field two supply-chain calls, one for the software stack and one for the box. Having said that, a majority of customers today still feel more comfortable having one throat to choke.
Should there be a portal where you can pick and choose? I think eventually we will get there, but for now, just like in the server industry, you need a certain amount of expertise to make everything work. It is not rocket science per se, but an additional step nonetheless that takes training and experience. Just like on the server side, tools like Chef, Puppet, and Razor are being adopted to streamline the onboarding process of new servers and switches. The idea of zero-touch provisioning for the device is becoming commonplace.
Phase one of the pivot is here. White-box switches are robust, cost-effective and shipping in quantities approaching tens of thousands per year. People are climbing aboard the bandwagon toward SDN, riding this path of commoditization, and laying the foundation for a hardware-agnostic network.