OpenSwitch is part of the wider movement to bring white-box switches to the mainstream. The idea is to let enterprises or service providers buy off-the-shelf hardware and load it with arbitrary, and replaceable, software.
Until recently, that hasn’t been possible. Instead it has meant that buying networking gear has involved buying into an operational model, as Cumulus Networks CTO JR Rivers said in a recent interview.
Yet Another NOS? Why?
HPE announced OpenSwitch in October, listing a handful of big names as community members. But any time a company starts its own open source project, there’s going to be suspicion that the project is being steered toward that company’s benefit. That’s why HPE handed governance to the Linux Foundation.
“We were aware of that criticism, so we made this step a priority,” says Mark Atwood, HPE’s OpenSwitch community director.
Other network operating systems were available, from Big Switch Networks and from HPE partners Cumulus Networks and Pica8. The difference with OpenSwitch is that HPE is aiming to provide an open source NOS that’s “complete,” Atwood says. Other network operating systems use open source components but are not entirely open source, he says.
Another NOS that emerged in March is Microsoft’s Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC). But unlike OpenSwitch, SONiC isn’t available in production yet; moreover, it’s intended for webscale deployments such as Microsoft Azure, Atwood says. OpenSwitch was created with normal enterprise networks in mind.
The reason HPE wants an open source NOS in the first place is to defray the cost of maintaining an operating system.
“Switching software is not what makes revenue. What makes revenue is selling switches and switch support,” Atwood says. Seeing the success of open source in other fields, HPE reasoned that an open source NOS would be cheaper to maintain. The participation of chip vendors, for example, should make it easier to ensure that the NOS can communicate with the switching chips used in white-box gear.
Moreover, picky customers can customize the NOS on their own, if they have the people to do it. That’s what LinkedIn is doing. The company isn’t using OpenSwitch in production yet (neither is anyone else, Atwood believes) but has been dabbling with it for “the last few months,” writes Zaid Ali Kahn, senior director of infrastructure architecture and strategy at LinkedIn in a blog entry posted today.
LinkedIn is seeking a NOS that has minimal features but can still support LinkedIn’s choice of control plane, he writes.
The white-box revolution, if there is one, is in its early days, with high volumes of equipment being purchased by a handful of buyers — specifically Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google, according to Dell’Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel. Arista Networks says it’s not seeing serious competition from white boxes yet, and Cisco says it’s successfully pushing back against white-box demand.