The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) in Enterprise Networks– Definition and Limitations

The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) is an open source project that defines a way to largely automate installation of a network operating system (NOS) on open white box or bare metal network switches. The intention behind ONIE is to enable an ecosystem where end users have a choice of hardware and NOS, and where end users, channel partners or systems integrators can easily install the NOS on the switch hardware.

ONIE was created by Cumulus Networks, which makes an open NOS intended for use in data center networks. ONIE was adopted by the Open Compute Project (OCP) in 2013 and is now incubated by OCP.

ONIE is actually a small operating system that is pre-installed as firmware on bare metal network switches, according to OCP. It enables the NOS to be installed as part of the data center provisioning process, in much the same way servers are provisioned, including the use of zero touch provisioning (ZTP).

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By supporting multiple open Ethernet switches and operating system alternatives, ONIE helps enable open, white box networking. White box networks are built on bare metal network switches from manufacturers such as Accton, Delta Networks, Foxconn and Quanta Cloud Technology. These same players supply Ethernet hardware to major networking industry vendors such as Cisco and Juniper; the only difference is Cisco and Juniper load their own, proprietary operating system on top of the hardware.

Network switches today have a management subsystem that can operate independently from the switching ASIC. ONIE is an open source install environment that runs on this management subsystem using facilities in a Linux kernel and BusyBox environment, according to the OCP ONIE project overview.

Among the ONIE switch highlights OCP cites is its ability to provide an environment for installing any NOS and “liberating users from a captive, pre-installed NOS.” It enables end users to manage network switches as they would Linux servers and “helps automate large scale data center switch provisioning.”

In a data center, ONIE automates switch installation using a dedicated, out-of-band management network that is typical for data center network infrastructure.

Enterprise networks that span a building, campus or the wide-area typically use in-band management, which means ONIE won’t work in remote enterprise network locations. That’s an issue for companies looking to upgrade numerous aging edge switches, for example, with white box switches.

A Pica8 customer, a Fortune 50 company that was installing Pica8 switches in hundreds of retail locations, ran into just this problem. It worked with Pica8 to define the requirements that would enable it to install switches more easily and quickly.

The result is the Pica8 Automation Framework. The framework comprises server-based tools deployed on a virtual machine (VM) in either a public or private cloud, and agents that come pre-installed on the switches.

The framework automates the process of installing the Pica8 PICOS network operating system on white box switches as they are installed in remote locations around the enterprise. As resellers ship switches, they install on each one the software agent, which includes an auto-connection script. When the switch is installed at the remote location, the auto-connection script enables it to find an automation server, which kicks off the configuration, updating and provisioning processes, including ONIE, ZTP and license management.

With its focus on open, white box networking, Pica8 is striving to enable more intelligent modern network infrastructure that’s easier to manage and maintain than legacy networks. Enabling a leaf-spine architecture is part of that effort, because it “flattens” the traditional three-tier enterprise network to just two layers, while dramatically easing management.

Pica8 is also working on enhancements to the ONIE standard that would allow for operation across in-band management without a pre-installed image or agent on the switch. Learn more about the Automation Framework in this free white paper.