The Ins and Outs of Bare Metal Switching

Hearing a lot of chatter about the benefits of bare metal switching lately? You’re not alone. It seems that everyone these days wants to build their software defined architectures on bare metal, which both cuts costs and increases flexibility for supporting next-generation data environments.

But are all bare metal solutions the same? And how do they differ from the so-called “white box” systems currently said to be instilling fear in the boardrooms at Cisco, Juniper and other big proprietary hardware makers?

Infonetics defines a bare metal switch as any device that allows for the decoupling of hardware and software on the networking stack in order to implement abstract network architectures. The firm estimates that these will make up about a quarter of all data center ports shipped worldwide in 2019, an 11 percent jump from last year. The increase will come mainly from traditional enterprises now that Dell, HP and others are jumping into the bare metal market, which so far has been dominated by hyperscale service providers building infrastructure to their own specs.

White box vs. bare metal

It’s important to distinguish between white box and bare metal these days, says Forrester’s Andre Kindness, particularly when it comes to assessing the costs and capabilities of alternative solutions. A bare metal switch comes from an original design manufacturer (ODM) like Accton or Alpha Networks,; it can be deployed as-is, or rebranded by a third party. White boxes are similar in that they contain the same merchant silicon, such as the Broadcom Trident II, but they generally come preloaded with a network operating system, like Juniper’s OCX or Big Switch’s Light OS. In many cases, the cost differences between bare metal and white box are negligible once software integration and support costs are added, but ease of deployment usually favors white box.

A third-party OS on a bare metal infrastructure does have its advantages, however. Among them is tight integration with other elements in the data stack, such as servers and even desktops. Cumulus Networks recently extended its Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) to support OS integration with bare metal systems. This should allow hardware providers to integrate network OS functionality into their platforms, allowing for faster and less complicated deployment and greater diversity of design options. Cumulus has also launched an Open Hardware program that aims to accelerate partner onboarding for its Linux OS and facilitate additional market-ready collaboration projects across the networking industry.

And silicon vendors like Broadcom are also working to foster greater compatibility between various software platforms and the StrataXGS chipset. The OpenNSL API made its debut at the OCP Summit earlier this month, providing an open northbound interface for the Broadcom software development kit that lets third-party applications tap directly into key on-chip functions like network monitoring, load balancing and workload optimization. The system also supports the Broadview monitoring and analytics suite to enable greater visibility and management of dynamic networking operations.

Deciding between bare metal and white box switches

Like most decisions surrounding open systems in the enterprise, the choice to go with bare metal hardware comes down to network requirements. Is speed of deployment and rapid integration a primary concern? Then a white box solution or even a proprietary switch is probably in order. Do you need flexibility and support for a broad vendor ecosystem? Then bare metal should work well, provided you also have the in-house expertise to wade into the network configuration world.

It is also important to note that, as with anything related to software defined architectures, the enterprise is entering uncharted territory, so there are bound to be a number of successes and failures when it comes to implementing advanced services on commodity hardware.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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