Surprised? Well, don’t go crowing victory for white boxes yet. Chambers still predicts the market will prefer Cisco’s approach of selling entire networks — architectures, as the company puts it. But he expects white boxes to be a contender, and if customers ask Cisco to join that market, the company would do it.
“We will run our software across white boxes. We will run our software across everything over time. But again, we’re agnostic; we let the market determine which way it wants to go,” Chambers said. But he did add: “I think architectures win.”
So, all Chambers did was acknowledged that Cisco’s software will probably run on white boxes someday — for an undetermined value of “someday.”
This stance doesn’t contradict Chambers’ earlier words, when he said Cisco has successfully shrugged off the white box threat. That’s true — for the moment.
Chambers has acknowledged the competition from white boxes and bare-metal switches for years. He’d be an idiot not to. Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are proudly using white box switches, and Facebook has added networking to the Open Compute Project, which strives to create open source hardware platforms.
“I think that will be one set of potential alternatives for customers, and I think the architectures will be the other,” he said. “I think architecture wins, because it’s about business outcomes, it’s less costly, etc. ”
The traditional model of selling network equipment will get caught in the middle, he said.
“We see our traditional competitors as single-product or two-product, siloed types of competitors, and I personally think that type of competitor, in the future, is going to have a very tough time,” Chambers said.
Chambers’ statement about running software “across everything” reflects the extent to which Cisco considers itself a software company. Cisco is already adjusting to selling products in terms of software licenses, rather than its traditional mode of selling systems box by box.
It might sound corny for Cisco to say it would support white boxes if customers request it, but that’s the same philosophy espoused by Arista Networks. Arista’s switches use off-the-shelf chips; it wouldn’t be a stretch to move to a model where the customer buys a commodity switch elsewhere and loads Arista’s software onto it. Arista’s recent move to license its EOS software is a sign that the company is aware of a possible white box future.
Cisco has set up a similiar possibility with its Nexus 3000 line of data center switches. They’re based on Broadcom chips rather than on Cisco ASICs, so they’re analogous to Arista’s products. In fact, Cisco is using the Nexus 3000s as a hedge just in case white box switching takes off, according to analyst Scott Raynovich of The Rayno Report.
Photo courtesy Cisco. Incoming CEO Chuck Robbins on left, John Chambers on right.