Understanding the basics of bare-metal switches
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What are white-box switches, and will they ever be a reality in enterprise networks?
White-box switches are a result of increased commoditization in the network marketplace and the collective realization that the value in networking is in software innovation rather than speeds and feeds. Many network vendors rely on standardized processor and chip designs from the likes of Intel and Broadcom, which create little differentiation at the bit level, especially at scale. In the same way that "generic" x86 white-box servers are available from relatively anonymous manufacturers, white-box switches leverage standardized designs to produce the cheapest possible hardware. These white boxes use network operating systems such as Open Network Linux or Cumulus Linux.
The ability to control a generic forwarding plane with a customized or open software stack is closely associated with software-defined networks, but, in reality, even conventional network designs may benefit from the marketplace shift toward commoditization.
The concept of white-box switches isn't as alien to enterprise network administrators as some may think. Although many opt for a "classic" vendor at the core of the network, less reputable gear may be deployed in areas perceived less critical (like wireless, access, print and network edge). You don't need to have a Facebook-sized problem to be under pressure to reduce costs on even a modest virtualization project. If you need to move data from point A to B quickly and cheaply without any fancy networking features, then white-box switching is going to be attractive.
If white-box vendors successfully make their products visible to a wider audience via direct outlets, such as Amazon.com or Hardware.com, the mainstream network vendors and distribution channels are going to be in a lot of trouble. For those controlling budgets, the cost delta between branded and generic hardware is going to be difficult to justify.
About the author:
Glen Kemp is a professional services consultant for Fortinet in the U.K. His words are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the company he works for. He designs and deploys network and application security tools, including access control, remote access, firewalls and other "keep the bad guys out" technologies. His blogs can be found at sslboy.net and at the Packet Pushers Podcast. Follow him on Twitter@ssl_boy.
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