Yes to Disaggregation, But Don’t Call it ‘White Box’

The enterprise is on board with the idea of defining advanced network architectures in software, while leaving hardware to serve as a commoditized foundation. And it seems that the top vendors of integrated platforms are OK with this as well — as long as you use the right terminology.

For a while now, the divide between OEM solutions and open platforms was characterized by words like “proprietary” and “white box,” as well as “generic,” “commodity,” “branded” and the like. These are still bandied about in networking circles, but increasingly the top vendors are starting to talk about “disaggregated” solutions. This basically means the vendor’s software can now run on anyone’s hardware (well, anyone who licenses it).

This is a pretty big step for a company like Cisco, says The Register’s Richard Chirgwin. After all, it wasn’t long ago that CEO John Chambers vowed to crush both the OEM hardware manufacturers and the software-only providers by pushing levels of functionality that only a fully integrated system could provide. Now, however, the company is out with new lines of disaggregated software products like the IOS XR and XE platforms, as well as the Nexus OS, which can run on non-Cisco hardware.

Dell EMC is on the same track with its Linux-based OS10 Open Edition operating system. The company recently signed a deal with Metaswitch to tie the software to Meta’s composable networking protocols, giving users the option to build IP and MPLS environments on bare-metal switches. Under the deal, Dell EMC will resell Meta’s routing and switching stacks on ONIE distributions of the OS10. The combined solution will support advanced DevOps environments and Linux-based OpenSwitch deployments.

The main reason this is happening is that traditional network vendors are coming to the realization that while integrated solutions may provide marginally better performance than disaggregated ones, they are nowhere near as flexible or as scalable. As Uber’s Justin Dustzadeh explained to the Open Networking Summit recently, networking is now a strategic asset to the enterprise; the rigid infrastructure of the past can no longer provide the programmability needed for modern workflows. Uber is already working with the open network community on approaches to disaggregation that will exceed the capabilities of OEM designs.

The fact is that if the large networking vendors do not embrace a disaggregated networking model, plenty of small firms are ready to jump at the chance. IP Infusion, for instance, recently teamed up with Barefoot Networks to develop a new programmable switch solution for 10/25/40/100 GbE environments. The pact will combine IP’s OcNOS software with the Barefoot Tofino switch ASIC to create a programmable network that spans datacenter and wide area infrastructure. The package will also be combined with Barefoot’s Deep Insight monitoring solution to enable packet-level Inband Network Telemetry (INB) for visibility into microbursts, congestion, load balancing and other performance issues.

To be fair, the majority of data center traffic still traverses branded, proprietary networking infrastructure, but this is not likely to be the case for much longer. The transition to new forms of virtual networking is already in full swing. Many enterprises will no doubt move much of this workload to software-defined resources in the cloud if they don’t have the budget or expertise to support them internally. At the same time, emerging applications, services and microservices cannot function in static environments because they are purpose-built for the freewheeling worlds of DevOps and disaggregation.

For traditional vendors, this is a simple case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Just don’t expect them to admit that they are now simply players in a white-box world.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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