Employing white box networking in the larger enterprise – Network Glossary Definition

White box networking refers to building a network using white box switches, which are switches built on commodity hardware that run your choice of network operating system (NOS). White box networking stands in contrast to traditional networks built with switches and routers typically from a single vendor, such as Cisco or Juniper, running a proprietary switch NOS.

The idea behind white box networking is to provide the same level of network performance and reliability, but at lower cost and with more flexibility than with traditional networking. Depending on the NOS selection, white box switching can also enable a leaf-spine network architecture that provides improved performance vs. the traditional three-tier network model and is far easier to manage.

White box networking relies on the use of standard, commodity hardware – the white boxes – from manufacturers such as Accton, Delta Networks, Foxconn and Quanta Cloud Technology. These are the same vendors that supply the “bare metal” hardware to major networking industry vendors, who then load their own proprietary operating systems on top.

Case Study: White Box Implementation

With white box networking, customers instead load the NOS of their choice. Importantly, the NOS is abstracted, or disaggregated from the switch hardware. This enables customers to swap out either the hardware or software whenever they like, providing far more flexibility and choice than with traditional networking equipment.

Many customers choose to employ an open source NOS in their white box networking environments. The Open Compute Networking Project, for example, is a set of disaggregated, open network technologies, including a Linux-based NOS and developer tools developed under the auspices of the Open Compute Project (OCP).

The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), an open source initiative driven by vendors to define an open “install environment” for white box switches, is also a project of the OCP. ONIE seeks to enable NOSs that are portable from one white box switch to another. The goal is to achieve a higher level of flexibility in the networking industry.

White box networking can also support software-defined networking (SDN) because the switches are by nature highly programmable. A central SDN controller can be used to send routing and control instructions to a series of white box switches installed throughout the network.

Some white box networking vendors support the use of SDNs alongside traditional Layer 2/Layer 3 routing protocols. Pica8 Crossflow technology enables each white box switch port to support L2/L3 traffic as well as SDN traffic at the same time. That can be used to send security updates to the switch, for example, without interrupting normal traffic flows. Similarly, the capability can be used to conduct deep security monitoring on switch ports, again without interrupting traffic.

With its PicaPilot technology, Pica8 also enables the leaf-spine network architecture that has been used successfully in data centers to extend to the wider enterprise (see diagram).  The resulting network is much “flatter” than the traditional three-tier architecture, with any switch able to connect to any other in a single “hop,” providing improved performance. What’s more, the approach also enables hundreds or more switches to be managed as one logical switch, when using the company’s PICOS Linux-based NOS.

PicaPilot enables deployment of a leaf-spine enterprise network topology throughout the enterprise.