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White Box Switches or Disaggregated Switching

White box switches or Disaggregated Switching and the concept of Open Networking

White Box Switches
White Box Switches

This interesting world of White Box Switches and what is called abroad Disaggregated Switching, Open Networking or even whatever was definitely! We chose the term to describe the Open Networking concept, which aims to "separate" the switch operating system from the hardware platform and enable the user to choose from the many available on the market of network operating system and hardware combinations.

For beginners it is sometimes difficult to understand the basics of White Box Switches and unlike similar equipment from the "traditional" branded Ethernet-switch. Let's start with the most important points to be aware of, and try to bring everything to a simple language.

The first question is: What is the Open Networking? This concept, which assumes that the software is separated from the switch hardware platforms. Those various network operating systems can be run on the same hardware. You can buy a switch from a single vendor, and software in the other, in contrast to the "traditional" branded switches that come with preinstalled OS.

The word "traditional" we do not like, because it suggests that opposition to it, something like "unconventional". If you offer a more correct term, will thank you for it.

If you begin to search for information in search engines, you will find a variety of different terms White Box, Bare Metal and Brite Box (someone writes separately, someone - with a hyphen). What is the difference between them?

White Box Switches, Brite Box and Bare Metal


The term "Bare-metal" means that the switch is nothing but the "iron". It does not set any network operating system, it's just a box with a set of Ethernet-ports. By default, these switches have a boot loader (eg, Open Network Install Environment (ONIE)), with the help of which you are downloading network operating system.

Bare-metal equipment, mainly produced by Taiwanese manufacturers such as Accton (Edge Core), Quanta QCT and Alpha Networks. These companies are often called ODM (Original Device Manufacturer) manufacturers. In the list you can add Corsa, Noviflow, Centec and Netronome.
For the end user Bare-metal switch - something quite useless, because it cannot use free software.

White Box Switches

White Box Switches - Bare-metal switch with pre-OS network. Such solutions generally offer start-ups. Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, Pica8 etc. These companies buy Bare-metal switches from ODM-manufacturers charged them their OS, glued label with the brand and sell. Earn by selling software, and support of the finished product, a full-featured switch.

Here are examples of the above network operating system manufacturers:

  • Linux Operating System from Cumulus;
  • PicOS from Pica8;
  • SwitchLight OS from the Big Switch.

Brite Box

Brite-box stands as a Branded White Box Switches, i.e. "Branded" White Box Switches. The term coined by Gartner and describe another model of selling White Box equipment.
Here is an example. Large HP and Dell offer a White Box Switches under its brands, but in fact - it's the same bare-metal hardware plus software from Cumulus, Pica8 and other suppliers of network operating systems. In the case of Dell need to make a small reservation: the vendor offers a third-party network operating systems, as well as its own Dell OS10.

Buying Brite-box switch - it's just more comfortable conditions for the customer, receiving support from a major vendor. For simplicity, we will continue to use the term «White Box» to describe all three types of switches.

Traditional Switches and White Box Switches

The switch consists of multiple components, but for a common understanding of White Box Switches is sufficient to know the four - chip, hardware, operating system and applications.

As can be seen from the figure above, White Box Switches provide greater flexibility to end users and a certain independence from the hardware manufacturer. The price of such switches is lower compared with the products of major vendors of network equipment. This is due to the fact that ODM manufacturers produce equipment for the mass market and use ready-made standard chipsets (Broadcom, Cavium, Mellanox, etc.) For a wide range of applications. However, the "flexibility" and "cheapness" White Box Switches must not be misleading, because there are many pitfalls and hidden costs, significantly affecting the total cost of ownership.

Functional network operating system depends on the choice of operating system manufacturer, but in most cases are supported by all the standard L2 / L3 protocols and, in some cases, the protocol OpenFlow.

One of the advantages of White Box Switches often indicate that engineers will be more comfortable to work with such switches. This comfort is "managing the switch as a conventional server". The controversial and not always right "advantage". Is it important that rather than an opportunity, and that the network operating system can be "modified a file" to the requirements of a specific customer. But to whom it may be necessary?

Areas of use

  • The target segment of the market for White Box Switches are data centers. The most interesting application of White Box is presented for major international companies from Facebook Discharge, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. In fact, these companies and promoted the concept of Open Networking. Here are some reasons:
  • Businesses of this size requires a huge number of switches deployed in data centers around the world. It does not seem to manage each device individually possible. Therefore, in the course are the various means of automation and centralization of management. The requirements to the functionality of the device are reduced. White Box Switches cheaper 'traditional', have similar port densities and allow a certain way to modify the network operating system for specific tasks. This makes them attractive for use in the data center.

In addition to reducing costs and automation of such a scale corporate focus on openness and flexibility of switching platforms. They do not want to be limited to a set of functionality offered by major vendors. This achieves much greater flexibility as compared with any solutions.

But are these the only large corporation’s targeted segment of the market for White Box? More likely no than yes! Any provider of cloud services, which require Ethernet-Switch, can be considered White Box Switches for the same reasons as the above-mentioned giants. It all depends on the volume.
Is it advisable to use White Box equipment in campus networks or corporate WAN? Again, it all depends on the size. Tangible economic effect is achieved if the number of such switches in the hundreds or even thousands. The main question is not to reduce CAPEX (when calculating everything is not as nice as it looks at first sight), and the potential reduction in OPEX. When considering the options, using White Box equipment, you need to ask yourself a few questions after answering which desire can be lost:

How many switches in the network and how often to change the configuration? If they can be counted on the fingers of two hands, what benefits we will get by the use of the concept?

What to choose, White Box Switches or Brite Box? If the first option, then who to contact in case of malfunctions? Will the second option cost so much cheaper to give up the familiar and proven equipment Cisco, Juniper, HP and others. The issue of formation of TCO, we want to see in the upcoming series of articles on the Open Networking concept. Stay tuned for updates to Facebook and of LinkedIn

  • How compatible are White Box Switches with existing network infrastructure, for example, based on Cisco? (You do not want that you can change all at once?)
  • In the case of a network operating system with open source, there is in the company's specialists, capable of supporting such a decision?
  • All these questions - just the tip of the iceberg... In our opinion, the prospects for an approach «bare-metal hardware + OS sided network" in small campus networks seem very vague, because I do not understand the benefits of this.
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