SDN and the White Box Question

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The coming year is going to be a big one for networking. SDN will go mainstream, allowing the enterprise to finally break free of the confines of bricks-and-mortar infrastructure to develop geographically distributed infrastructure in a significant way.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, this effort will require a fair bit of new physical infrastructure, at least if you want a purpose-build abstract network environment and not something that is simply layered on top of or tunneled through existing infrastructure.

This leads to a key question for network engineers: should you build on white box hardware or a more integrated vendor solution?

Part of that answer will depend on how well you trust your distributor or systems integrator to walk you through the often difficult process of deploying virtual networks on commodity hardware. But it will also come down to fundamental capabilities and whether open networking formats prove durable enough at higher data rates.

This is already proving critical at hyperscale providers like Facebook, which recently introduced a 100 Gbps version of the Wedge ToR switch after realizing that the current 40 Gbps design wasn’t going to cut it much longer. The Wedge 100 offers up to 32 non-blocking ports for a total carrying capacity of 3.2 Tbps and utilizes Facebook’s own FBOSS operating system to handle the increasing amounts of east-west traffic that the company generates, although white box versions will likely use the Open Network Linux platform that Facebook is developing with Big Switch.

Conventional wisdom holds that white box infrastructure is cheaper than proprietary solutions. This is certainly true for the hardware but tends to break down when ancillary costs like integration, performance testing and management are added. Regardless, says Centec Networks CEO James Sun, cost is really a secondary consideration to the flexibility and customization that white box offers. As data becomes the business at many organizations, not simply a means to support other business activities, even small differentiations in networking capability can provide a competitive edge. White box solutions meet this need by offering a high degree of customization to suit targeted, mission-critical applications and data sets.

That flexibility is driven increasingly by the incorporation of new programmable ASICs into white box hardware. Cavium and OS developer Pica8 recently partnered up on an integrated networking solution based on the XPliant chip. The system will utilize Pica8’s PicOS OpenFlow-based networking operating system to enable programmable network solutions for highly dynamic abstract environments. Now that cloud- and SaaS-based applications are increasing the demands on network infrastructure beyond traditional client-server architectures, organizations need to improve their granular control over both networking hardware and software, which the Cavium/Pica8 solution provides in part by integrating SDN and Layer 2/3 networking on a single switch.

Even proprietary vendors like Juniper are starting to hedge their bets when it comes to white box solutions. The company recently separated the Junos operating system from its underlying hardware, producing the twin effect of allowing Junos to be deployed in third-party switches and third-party operating systems to run on Juniper switches like the QFX5200 series. The company is betting that its worldwide distribution channels will give it an edge over rival white box suppliers while at the same time customers and developers will write the killer apps that will drive demand for both Junos and Linux based switches running OpenStack, Apache or other platforms.

None of this is to say that proprietary switching solutions are heading to the dustbin. Far from it, in fact, as organizations are likely to stick with what, and who, they know for the bulk of their networking needs even as SDN breaks the bond between control and data functionality. But when a highly specialized need presents itself, a commodity physical layer might be what is needed to turn it into a unique advantage.

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