Using open white box switches in enterprise networks – Network Glossary Definition

Open white box refers to a white box switch that runs an open network operating system (NOS).

White box switches share three basic attributes: they are built on commodity bare metal switch hardware, use chipsets (ASICs) from established vendors, and run your choice of NOS. It’s the NOS choice that determines whether a white box switch is open or not.

An open white box NOS is based on open source software, typically Linux, and is intended to run on any white box switch hardware. This is a significant change for the switching market, where vendors such as Cisco and Juniper have for decades sold switches that run their proprietary NOSs; the hardware and software were inextricably tied to one another.

With open switching, the NOS is abstracted, or disaggregated, from the underlying hardware. That means users are free to swap out either the hardware or NOS when they like. The approach is analogous to the use of virtual servers, which disaggregate the server OS from the underlying hardware. Organizations including the Open Compute Project have been working to promote open white box NOSs. The Open Compute Networking Project, for example, is an OCP effort to create a set of disaggregated, open network technologies, including a Linux-based NOS and developer tools.

Similarly, the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) is an open source initiative to define an open “install environment” for white box switches. Also a project of the OCP, ONIE is intended to enable an ecosystem with a set of NOSs and compatible white box switch boxes, enabling users to mix and match hardware and software to meet their needs. The idea is that any white box (or brite box) switch that supports ONIE can run any ONIE-compatible NOS. Open Network Linux, another OCP project, is one example of an open-source NOS that uses the ONIE install environment to install into a white box switch’s flash memory.

Efforts such as ONIE are intended to help make white box networking viable for enterprise network use by making it easier to deploy white box switches. It complements efforts from vendors such as Pica8, whose PICOS NOS is certified to run on hardware from a variety of vendors, thus giving customers a choice of hardware platforms to best suit their needs, even high-performance, cloud scale requirements.