Acknowledging the unique demands of the hyperscale data center market, Juniper is going to offer its own white box switch: off-the-shelf hardware, built around Open Compute Project specs and running the Junos operating system.
This is new territory for Juniper, and a concession to a market segment that doesn’t want the mix of hardware, software, and features that networking vendors traditionally offer. Whether other major vendors will make similar moves is yet to be seen.
The OCX1100, being announced Wednesday morning, Singapore time, is a top-of-rack switch built by Alpha Networks, with 48 10-Gb/s ports and six 40-Gb/s uplinks. At its heart is a Broadcom Trident II switch chip.
It’s designed to be compliant with the Open Compute Project, and indeed, it’s the kind of switch that Facebook and Google have been building for themselves. Both companies feel traditional vendors were offering switches too feature-laden and too expensive for their needs; for hyperscale data centers, they needed something more disposable.
With the OCX1100, due to ship during the first quarter of 2015, Juniper isn’t targeting the hyperscale giants themselves, but the next tier. Big enterprises, especially in the financial sector, are relying on similarly large data centers and are finding the white box model attractive.
But the real white box model involves buying hardware, usually from a Taiwanese vendor such as Alpha, and installing software bought separately from the likes of Cumulus Networks or Pica8. (Or, in Facebook’s case, you write the software yourself — something not a lot of enterprises are keen on.)
It’s a lot of work, which is why Cumulus and Pica8 have both offered pre-integrated switches. Juniper’s bet is that such a pre-integrated switch, with an established brand-name operating system on top and support from a major industry player, will appeal to those large enterprises.
“We think there’s a level of customer just below those top seven that could benefit from this,” says Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president of Juniper’s security and switching business unit.
Juniper isn’t alone. Dell offers Cumulus Linux running on its switches, for instance. And in recent blogs, Lerner and Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness have remarked that they’re hearing more questions from vendors about the strategy.
Kindness doesn’t think every vendor should try a white box strategy, though. More on that in a bit.
Throw Away Junos
The OCX1100 comes with a version of Junos modified to run on top of Linux — but really, it’s a white box at heart. Customers are free to remove Junos and install any operating system they want; the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) boot loader is provided for that purpose.
Think about that. Juniper’s router franchise, and later its Ethernet switching business, were built on Junos. The company has prided itself on keeping those products tied to one version of that operating system, as opposed to the many splintered versions of Cisco’s Internetwork Operating System.
But now, Juniper is expecting some customers to throw away Junos. Juniper doesn’t want that to happen right away, but it’s possible that in, say, three or five years, customers might find that Cumulus or Pica8 options suit them better. “What this does is allay concerns,” Davidson says.
In other words, Juniper is preaching against vendor lock-in. The mind reels.
Granted, this is only for one type of switch and one type of customer — “a unique segment of customers that are building out extremely large clouds with 10,000 servers in a data center,” Davidson says.
When it comes to the business model, the margins in software aren’t scaring the company. The bigger risk is to the top line, because the sales price on a white box is a lot smaller than that of, say, a Juniper QFX top-of-rack switch.
The key to Juniper’s strategy is that many of these large data-center customers aren’t buying Juniper anyway, Davidson says. “We don’t think this is going to cannibalize our business,” Davidson says. “We believe this is going to let Junos get to net new customers.”
What About QFabric?
The OCX1100 uses Junos to create an IP fabric network for the data center. But you might recall that Juniper has another data center architecture — QFabric, which was also designed for large data centers and which includes the QFX top-of-rack switch line.
The OCX1100 starts a different lineage for large data centers. It’s not built to work with QFabric.
That doesn’t mean Juniper is giving up on QFabric, Davidson says. “There’s definitely a large market segment where QFabric solves some really big problems,” he says, citing deployments at the likes of Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT).
QFabric and the QFX top-of-rack nodes remain appropriate “for those customers who want to have Layer 2 and 3 in every port, who don’t want to think about the locality of their applications, and who want one-touch provisioning,” Davidson says. “We are not going to end-of-life our story on our EX or QFX portfolios.”
Neither does the OCX mean Juniper is giving up on building ASICs for some switches and routers. The company has been using merchant chips since 2008 — first from Marvell, more recently from Broadcom — but “there are still market segments where our customers expect us to solve problems, and right now those problems can only be solved with custom silicon,” Davidson says.
Where White Boxes Don’t Fit
Just because Juniper embraced white boxes doesn’t mean every switch vendor should. For some of them, it wouldn’t be a smart investment, according to Forrester’s Kindness.
That’s because the market has fragmented. Previously, Cisco and Juniper could target a switch at just about every market — there would be different sizes, of course, and some variation in features, but the heart of the design would remain the same.
Maintaining a universally applicable switch has gotten complicated, though. “Cisco caters to a lot of people, and that’s why people complain about complexity. At some point, it just bogs you down. This is why they started over with the Nexus 9000,” which lacks some features of its predecessors, Kindness says.
It’s also partly why Facebook and Google designed their own switches. But their white-box approaches are specifically molded for the data center.
Arista, then, is one vendor that could follow Juniper’s lead, because it started off by targeting data centers. “For them to embrace that would not be detrimental. It’s not a huge leap,” says Kindness (who had not yet been briefed on Juniper’s announcement when I spoke with him).
Most other switch vendors, though, are more accustomed to the switch market that’s grown around campus and branch office needs.
“It takes a certain amount of engineering effort to make your software compatible” to other environments, Kindness says. “This is why Arista was able to take some of Cisco’s market and why white boxes have, too. One company is not going to be able, in the future, to serve everybody.”
Kindness stresses that this doesn’t mean Cisco is dead, and it doesn’t mean white boxes are bad. It’s more that they’re going to serve different parts of an increasingly varied switch market.