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Benefits of White Box (whitebox) Switch Hardware in the Larger Enterprise Network: 2018 end-of-year update

White box switch hardware is the platform on which white box switches are built. Also known as “bare metal,” it is generally commodity hardware that comes from large manufacturers such as Accton, Delta Networks, Foxconn and Quanta Cloud Technology.

White box networking equipment has evolved over the last few years along with the overall switching market. Whereas white box network switches initially were limited in terms of speed and capacity, today they come in an array of sizes and options that can meet even the most demanding enterprise switch requirements.

White box switch options include:

  • 1G switch with 48 1G ports (or Power-over-Ethernet ports) and 4 10G ports
  • 10G switch with 48 10G ports and 6 40G ports
  • 25G switch with 48 25G ports
  • 40G switch with 32 40G ports
  • 100G switch with 32 100G ports

The switches, also known as open source switch hardware, use the latest chipsets from large vendors including Broadcom, Intel, Marvell and Mellanox.

Essentially, white box switch hardware in the larger enterprise network is the same standard hardware used by traditional networking vendors such as Cisco and Juniper. The only difference is those vendors put their own network operating system on top, creating a proprietary switch. By contrast, white boxes run whatever NOS the customer chooses. The major vendors also charge a premium for their switches, perhaps even twice as much as a comparable white box switch.

Most white box switch hardware runs an “open” NOS, often based on an open source Linux kernel, that is abstracted (or disaggregated) from the hardware platform. (For this reason, the switches are sometimes referred to as open source switch hardware).This abstraction enables users to port the NOS to any hardware platform at any time. That means as newer white box switch hardware is developed (or newer software), customers can swap out their existing platform for a new one – including a platform from a different vendor. Essentially, customers are free to upgrade their hardware and software whenever it makes sense from a price/performance perspective.

Open source switch hardware is also highly programmable, making it ideal for use in software defined networks (SDNs). Pica8, for example, offers its CrossFlow software, which enables its switches to support both Layer 2/Layer 3 networking protocols and SDN on the same port – a first in the networking industry.

White box hardware in practice

The combination of white box hardware and an open NOS enables the concept of open white box networking, which is an alternative approach to building enterprise networks using traditional, proprietary network switches from the major vendors. Such an approach can bring a number of benefits.

For one, it’s a cost-effective way to deal with the onslaught of traffic that companies are now seeing at the network edge. This is the result of Internet of Things (IoT) applications connecting hundreds or thousands of devices and sensors to the network edge, as well as the bring-your-own-device trend, with each user connecting multiple devices to the network. Many of them are capable of producing or consuming huge amounts of data, such as from streaming video. Significant use of cloud services is another driver, with lots of traffic entering the network at the edge before it gets to the cloud.

In a traditional enterprise network, companies would deal with this increased traffic load by upgrading their edge switches or switch chassis. That is an expensive proposition when buying from the traditional vendors.

Open white box switches, on the other hand, are far more cost-effective because they come without the markup that the major vendors apply.

The open white box approach can also enable a more streamlined leaf-spine network topology rather than the traditional three-tier model, with access, aggregation and core layers. With the leaf-spine model, enterprises can collapse the access and aggregation layers into one. In many cases, the network can then be configured such that there’s only a single “hop” between any two devices, providing more streamlined connections and improved performance as compared to the three-tier model.

As implemented by vendors including Pica8, the leaf-spine architecture also improves performance by implementing Multi-Chassis Link Aggregation (MLAG) technology as a replacement for the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). While STP supports two paths between any two network points, only one of them can be active at any given time. MLAG allows both links to be active, which effectively doubles the amount of available network bandwidth. MLAG also supports a much faster convergence time after it needs to make network adjustments, such as to route around failed links.

The Pica8 difference

The Pica8 approach to white box networking is built upon PICOS, an open, Linux-based NOS. It can run on a wide variety of white box switch hardware from numerous vendors (see list of compatible hardware).

Additionally, Pica8 PicaPilot technology enables companies to implement the leaf-spine architecture on open white box switches. PicaPilot further simplifies network operations and management by enabling dozens of switches to be managed as one, under a single IP address. In a campus network, that means all switches in a single building could be managed under a single IP address, for example.

Such an approach greatly simplifies network operations and administration. Any switch software upgrades or patches, for example, can be installed with a single click rather than having to “touch” each switch.

PicaPilot also enables enterprises to use open white box switch hardware to replace groups of proprietary stacked switches or expensive chassis-based switches to support access layer traffic, while actually lowering the management burden.