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Switching On the White Box Switches

By CIOReview | Tuesday, June 21, 2016

White box switches refers to the ability to use ‘generic’ off-the-shelf switching and routing hardware in the forwarding plane of a SDN (Software Defined Network). White box switches are really just ‘blank’ standard hardware. They constitute the basic element of the commodity networking ecosystem required to help organizations to choose the elements they need to realize their SDN objectives.

Adorable to Facebook, Amazon, and Google and inherently disliked by networking vendors considering them a threat, the notion of White Box switches surrogates a lot of pre-built notions. The first wave of white box was on PCs and servers, and we already know that white box servers running Linux have won that battle in leading web services and cloud service providers such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and also some communication service providers and enterprise sectors. Google and Facebook are working with ODMs to build their own servers and switches, because they not only want to differentiate at the software level but also differentiate at the hardware level. The matter of the fact is that they have become very important in this age of SDN (Software Defined Networking) due to their “Open Platform” nature. CIOs today require extensive expertise on the basic fundamentals of a White Box switch; position it against the traditional Ethernet switch and know about its use cases to ascertain if they are an option for us today.

White box switches are finally emerging from the shadows and offering an alternative in the network OS as well as flexibility. The phrase “white box” has long been in use. The very same ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers) that produced them are getting into this arena of manufacturing white-box switches. White-box switches look just like any ordinary switch—and their manufacturers will be familiar to those who have purchased white-box servers: Celestica, Accton, and so on.  The most common operating system for white box switches is Linux-based, due to its high availability of free and open tools.

What Makes it Different?

White box switches are different from traditional switches as they lack intelligence; whereas traditional switches and routers have their own forwarding and routing tables. In SDN environments, applications on top of the SDN Controller offer this higher-level intelligence by using OpenFlow to dictate connection routes and tasks. A Bare Metal switch has got no operating system installed on it. It is a structure with multiple ports. When a company buys it, it loads its own operating system to make it functional. At bare minimum, it has a boot loader installed-Open Network Install Environment (ORIE), which enables Operating System (OS) installation. Bare Metal switches are mainly manufactured by Taiwanese companies like Quanta QCT, Accton, and Alpha networks. These companies are also known as ODMs (Original Device Manufacturers). A White Box switch can run any traditional networking protocols or it can run any SDN based southbound protocols like Open flow. Usually, white box switches are offered by small and medium size start-up companies like Cumulus, Big Switch, and others, but now traditional networking vendors have also introduced their version of white box switches, like Juniper has unveiled its own, named OCX1100 which runs Juniper’s own operating system JUNOS .

Future of White Box Switches

Data centers are the initial target for white box switches. Especially the large web scale companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google have an affinity towards them because of the following reasons:

1. Because of the need of massive deployment of switches in their large data centers, the number of ports required in each switch is high. As white box switches are cheaper and the ports density is high, they are a viable option for data center deployment by these companies

2. The big companies—besides CAPEX savings—are looking at the openness and flexibility of the switch platform. They don’t have to adhere to the traditional networking box. They have their own band of developers to develop and support any SDN based networking that offer them much broader flexibility. A White Box is just a perfect platform to offer such flexibility.

Now the question arises: Are these large web scale companies the only target market for the White Box switch? The answer to this question is ‘No’. Any small or medium cloud based provider that require Ethernet switches in data centers can opt for White Box because of the cost savings associated compared to proprietary switches and because of the familiar IT tools/ commands they are used to.

However, white box switches are not meant for everyone, at least not at this present moment. The reasons behind this observation are:

The hardware is not as reliable as the traditional box. In fact this is not a shortcoming. A typical data center is designed in a way that switches take on collective risk and thus failure of a single switch or even multiple switches do not affect traffic. (It is just like commodity servers failing and other servers taking the load)

Are they good and suitable enough to be deployed in other such typical large enterprises? Perhaps, not yet!

The SLAs, support and reliability are the factors that cannot be ignored. These risks can be extenuated, to some extent, by finding a middle way like dealing with branded Brite Boxes from known vendors like HP and Dell. They have a large support network which can help maintain a product installed in stringent SLA environment. Also, White Boxes are not yet ready to offer all services that a service provider needs to offer like for example, Carrier Ethernet based services.

Having said that, White Box switches are meeting their target market requirements successfully and that is the main reason behind their ever increasing sales figures. Thus they can be seriously considered for their typical use case, which is data center application. While the advantages of current white-box platforms may not be enough to tip the scales of your purchasing decision in its favor, it may open your eyes to the possibilities available today and give you a roadmap to your next big decision.