The Present Impact of Open Networking & Whitebox Switching

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While at Interop Las Vegas 2015, I noticed that open networking and whitebox switching platforms were making their presence known. In the case of open networking, Dell has planted their flag firmly, making a number of presentations at their booth, including some on open networking. Greg and I presented briefly at the Dell Interop booth to discuss the value proposition — in other words, why do you care about the fact that Dell is an open networking play now? I can answer that as follows:

  1. Dell announced new switches at Interop, including the multirate Z9100-ON, that are open. They support ONIE, and you can load any compatible network operating system you like.
  2. Dell stated at Interop that all of their new switches going forward will be open by default.
  3. Dell has made a point of partnering with NOS vendors like Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks.
  4. Dell had added a new partner, IP Infusion. IP Infusion is what I like to think of as a vendor for vendors. They write IP and related protocol stacks. That code gets baked into other vendors’ products. There’s a very good chance you’re running IP Infusion code in your network right now. IP Infusion has taken their mature codebase, and turned it into a network operating system for end users. OcNOS is aimed specifically at folks in an Open Compute environment, although anyone could run it. This is sort of a big deal, both for Dell and IP Infusion. Dell gets an interesting new NOS to offer (check out the long OcNOS feature list), and IP Infusion gets access to a large customer base.
  5. Reports from the trenches to my inbox suggest that Dell pricing is aggressive, although not quite as low as a pure whitebox play. Still, some enterprises will be happy to pay more for a trusted name.
  6. In summary, Dell is, in my opinion, leading the open networking hardware market in the context of consumption ease. While there are many whitebox vendors that will sell you an open switch you can install a variety of compatible NOS’s on, Dell is making it less intimidating for the uninitiated to do so, offering a recognized brand name as well as simplified support model.

I found it interesting that some pure whitebox vendors also had their wares on display at Interop. I’ll admit that I didn’t write the names down, and the brands do escape me. But, the specific players aren’t critical for the point I want to make, which is this. As whitebox switching becomes more and more noticed by the mainstream, more and more folks will have reason to explore those options. The pricing model will become very hard to ignore. While some might respond that Cisco can never be de-throned from their market dominance in Ethernet switching, reality is that many are looking for lower cost options. Consider a couple of points.

  1. Money is an issue. Not all companies are willing to pay high prices for switching hardware. Some would rather purchase cheaply and often than expensively and rarely, i.e. run on shorter replacement cycles to take advantage of faster hardware sooner.
  2. Not everyone needs a Cadillac. Some have pointed out that an issue with various open network operating systems is that the feature set isn’t very long. The question is…does that matter? Not every network will require every feature out there. That said, open NOS vendors like Pica8 are releasing more and more features. Open NOS vendors are catching up quickly. The feature disparity is being reduced, and will continue to be over time.

Then the question becomes, at what point does it make sense to pay a high price for data center and campus infrastructure? That’s an even more poignant question if SDN controllers and easy-to-consume automation make the CLI a moot point. Why do I care that the switch in question has a familiar CLI if I’m going to be using an Ansible playbook or Chef recipe to provision the switch? Admittedly, most of the networking professionals in the world still use the CLI, and networking automation is still a work in progress with a long road ahead of it. However, I am seeing tremendous interest from networkers in automation platforms and scripting with Python. People are looking for ways to perform  network configuration that is integrated with other IT silos.

For a bit more pontification on open networking & whitebox switching, you might like this Tech Field Day video below. Several of us at Interop got together to discuss our observations. Enjoy.

2 comments

  • I’m at a point where I prefer the Linux CLI to most others. What’s not to like about ‘ip a’ instead of ‘show ip int brief’ or ‘show interfaces terse’. Sure, it’s unfamiliar but we should remember that most vendor’s CLIs are the functionally reduced, low IQ, needy ginger step child equivalent of a Linux one. Of course, in our brave new world, ideally you’d only use the/any CLI for provisioning a minimal viable configuration prior to your tool of choice doing the rest.

    Perhaps its my background (DC) but I’m not sure what of note is missing feature wise, particularly when companies like IPI bring their products into the mix.

    Sorry, couldn’t watch the video so apologies if I’m repeating what may have been discussed.

  • Just to add, a few command aliases would ease the transition I’m sure; I’m surprised this isn’t part of the vendor’s solution. I suspect that because the target customer doesn’t have a problem, because they have skilled ‘cross domain’ staff who aren’t fazed by Linux, or networking.

Ethan Banks is a podcaster and writer with a BSCS and 20+ years in enterprise IT. He's operated data centers with a special focus on infrastructure — especially networking. He's been a CNE, MCSE, CEH, CCNA, CCNP, CCSP, and CCIE R&S #20655. He's the co-founder of Packet Pushers Interactive, LLC where he creates content for humans in the hot aisle.

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