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Open Network Install Environment gives end users network OS choices

The Open Network Install Environment's community of vendors offers an open install environment for bare-metal switches using its Linux-based OS installer.

The Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) is an open source project that defines an install environment for bare-metal network switches. These switches include existing original design manufacturer switches, as well as an upcoming Open Compute Project  network switch design. The Open Network Install Environment was created by Cumulus Networks in 2012 and was incubated and adopted by the Open Compute Project in 2013.

The goal of the ONIE is to enable a bare-metal network switch ecosystem that allows end users to choose between different vendor OSes. Founding members of the ONIE project include Big Switch Networks, Agema, Broadcom, Edge-Core, Mellanox Technologies, Quanta and Penguin Computing.

The foundations of the Open Network Install Environment

ONIE offers a network operating system installer used by white box switch vendors to load a network OS onto their switches. A Linux-based OS first boots on a switch, and then discovers network installer images available on the local network. Next, it transfers an image to the switch and provides an environment, allowing the installer to load the network OS onto the switch.

Essentially, ONIE acts as an enhanced boot loader while using facilities in a Linux environment. The OS allows end users to install the target network OS in the same way the servers are provisioned.

Shrijeet Mukherjee, vice president of engineering at Cumulus and ONIE spokesperson, said that prior to creating ONIE in 2012, he and his team were looking for a standard way to do network deployment for network boxes.

"That was one problem," he said. "The second problem was the way images were managed or the way black boxes were perceived. [Most thought], 'I don't need to know how they work. Someone gives me a button, and for an image upgrade, I press that button.'"

Cumulus' general view on white box switching, though, was to make the network look more like servers. The company soon began to explore an open ecosystem to install whatever was needed, while having that ecosystem resemble a server and interact with the network on a variety of levels.

"That's the backdrop," he said. "We solved the network install problem and made it look like a server. ... On one level, it's a trivial piece of software. But [on] another level, it's an important piece of software."

Mukherjee said four of Cumulus' major original design manufacturer partners were immediately on board. "It was an interesting step for them," he said. "It's a win-win for everyone concerned, and it's unique in this industry to approach this problem in a non-partisan way. We believe there's no value in trying to make something that's only Cumulus-specific. This works when the global ecosystem believes it's a non-partisan [effort] and participates."

ONIE also allows hardware suppliers and resellers to manage their operations based on a small number of hardware stock keeping units. In turn, this is said to create economies of scale in manufacturing, distribution and stocking.

ONIE and the Open Compute Project

Soon after its inception, ONIE began contributing to the Open Compute Project (OCP) in order to advance open source network software. Mukherjee explained that OCP was building its networking track, and one of the things they decided to start with was how to standardize white box options. However, there was a "sea of white box options," he said. "Not one looked anything like the other … and there was no way to unify them."

In turn, ONIE proposed to OCP that they standardize. "As long as the installer is agnostic, I can use the same installer in the infrastructure for all of my boxes. That … was appealing to the networking track in OCP," Mukherjee said. Since then, ONIE has become a foundational element of OCP. "It's not something we really talk about anymore -- it's a de facto requirement for providing networking equipment in OCP."

Furthering the white box conversation

For now, Mukherjee and his team believe white box switching is the "switching conversation to be had."

"It is a foundational piece to establish a base-level installer that's hardware-agnostic," he said. However, when looking at ONIE beyond white box switching, vendors are starting to receive some tough questions from customers, Mukherjee said.

"Given the amount of pressure in today's data centers … everyone is looking to see how to provide the things they value most. The domain of ONIE today has everyone answering the question, 'Do you provide hardware or software?' And if you ask that question to yourself, it has an impact," he said.

"If you have ONIE as a standard, there's no need for monolithic hardware vendors to consider an abstraction in between. And today, people are being asked to explain why [their] box is monolithic, and why [they] can't switch the OS to someone else's if [they] buy software from them but can't switch to another box. That's the interesting conversation outside of white box switching itself."

This was last published in August 2014

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