White box Switch for DUMMIES

The large web scale companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google love them.

The traditional networking vendors hate them as they consider them a threat.

The truth is that they  have become significant in this age of SDN , thanks to their “Open Platform” concept.

Therefore it is important to understand the basic concept of a White Box switch;  clearly position it against the traditional  Ethernet switch and understand its use cases to know if they are an option for us today.

This guide explains the most important things you need to know about a white box switch in simple plain English.

But before that, let’s define an “open switch” (Generic name for a white box switch).

An open switch is the one that has its software not dependent on its hardware. The hardware can be used with many different kind of operating systems with no relation between the hardware and the software. Usually, these are  commodity/cheaper switch boxes built on merchant silicon by Taiwanese manufacturers, called Original Device Manufacturers ( ODMs) like Accton, Quanta and Alpha etc.

You can buy a commodity switch from one vendor and software from another vendor. This is in contrast to a closed switch that comes as one package including the hardware and the software. For example, when you buy a catalyst switch from Cisco, you are obliged to use Cisco IOS as its operating system.

The first time you start reading about an open switch, you hear a lot of different names like a white box, a bare metal box, a brite box etc.

This leads to the first thing you need to know about a white box switch, followed by the other two things:

 FIRST: Know the terms clearly ( White Box Switch or Bare Metal Switch or Brite Box ?)

Bare Metal switch

The name Bare Metal says it all as there is almost nothing except metal.

A Bare Metal switch does not have any  operating system installed on it.  It is a chassis with multiple ports. Another company buys it and loads its own operating system to make it functional. At minimum, it has a boot loader installed-Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), which enables Operating System (OS) installation.

Bare Metal switches are mainly manufactured by Taiwanese companies like Accton, Quanta QCT and Alpha networks. These companies are also called ODMs (Original Device Manufacturers).

Therefore when you buy a switch from an ODM, you just get a bare metal switch.

White Box Switch

A white box switch has an operating system installed on a Bare Metal switch; that is the only difference with a Bare Metal switch.

White Box switch=Bare Metal switch + Operating System (OS)

White Box switches are offered by small startup companies like Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks, Pica8.

These companies take Bare Metal switches from Taiwanese ODMs, load their OS and sell them as White boxes.

Cumulus uses Linux Operating system,  Pica8 used PicOS and Big switch uses Switch Light.

Brite Box Switch

Britebox = BRanded WhITEBOX.

Britebox is basically a branded white  box. For example brand companies like HP and Dell sell these switches under their brand names but actually these are the white box switches from Cumulus/Pica8 etc., which are originally  manufactured by the Taiwanese ODMs.

Buying a branded box gives more comfort level to customers in terms of product support compared to dealing with small vendors.

Moving forward, we will use  the term “White Box Switch” for all these generic open switches.

 

SECOND: Know the FOUR components of an Ethernet switch

In reality, there are many components of an Ethernet switch but four of these are important to know. These four are the Silicon, the Box,  the Operating System and the Applications.

These terms are defined through a diagram as following, read from bottom to top.

image

 

Further you need to know, how a commodity switch positions against a proprietary switch using these four components. These are summarized in the  diagram as below.

image

As it is apparent from the above diagram that white box switches give far more flexibility as the user is not dependent on the hardware of a proprietary vendor,  which has slow development and innovation cycle.

It is cheaper than their proprietary counterparts as the ODMs manufacture them in mass scale using commodity chip/parts and sell them to any  one interested in buying them.

A White Box  switch can run any traditional L2/L3 networking protocols or it can run  any SDN based southbound protocols like  Open flow. Usually white box switches are offered by small start up companies like Big Switch, Cumulus and Pica8 but now traditional networking vendors have also introduced their version of white box switches like Juniper has launched a white box switch, named OCX1100 that runs Juniper’s own operating system JUNOS .

THIRD: Know  the use cases of White box switch.

The White Box concept is similar to the concept of servers, we buy today and load an operating system  ( can be windows, linux etc) of our choice.

The IT folks would be more comfortable working with White Box switches rather than traditional switches.

Think of it ! managing a white box’s  Linux system with the same tools, processes, similar commands as those for managing Linux servers.

The  initial target market for white box switches are data centers. Especially the large web scale companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google love them because of the following reasons.

1. These companies need massive deployment of switches in their large data centers. The number of ports required in each switch is high. As white boxes are cheaper and the ports density is high, therefore they are attractive option for data center deployment by these companies

2. The Web scale companies besides CAPEX savings are looking at the flexibility and openness of the switch platform.  They don’t have to stick to the traditional networking box or typical L2/L3 protocols. They have their own army of developers to develop and support any  SDN based networking that offer them  much broader flexibility than any traditional box can provide. A White Box is just an ideal platform to offer such flexibility

But are the large web scale companies, the only target market for the White Box switch ?

No !

Any small or medium cloud based provider ( or data centers of service providers)  that need Ethernet switches in data centers can consider White Box  because of the cost savings associated compared to proprietary switches and because of the familiar IT tools/ commands  their server folks are used to !

However, white box switches are not for everyone, at least not today:

The hardware is not as reliable as the proprietary box. In fact this is not a shortcoming: A typical data center  is designed in way that  switches take on collective risk and thus  failure of a single switch or even multiple switches  do not affect traffic. ( It is just like commodity servers failing and other servers taking the load )

Are they suitable to be deployed in other typical  large enterprise/ service provider networks ( Non Data center environment) ?

Perhaps not yet !

The SLAs , reliability and support are important factors that cannot be ignored . These risks can be  mitigated, to some extent,  by finding a middle way like dealing with branded Brite Boxes from known vendors like HP and Dell  that have a large support network that can help maintain a product installed in stringent SLA environment.

Also White Boxes are not yet ready to offer all features and  services that a service provider needs to offer like for example, Carrier Ethernet based services.

Having said that, White Box switches are meeting their target market requirements successfully.That is  why their sales continue to grow. Thus they can be seriously considered for their typical use case which is a data center application.

That’s it about a short introduction of a White Box switch.

Now its your turn to tell me anything you know about white box or its use case. Tell me in comments section:

  1. Do you agree with the applications, I listed.
  2. Did I miss out on any important info about the white box. Feel free to tell me.

I love to hear your opinions here !

32 thoughts on “White box Switch for DUMMIES”

  1. The Telecom Infra Project Voyager white box transponder aims to separate hardware and software to decouple innovation timelines between the two domains. This is the recent blog/news I read about
    Open Packet DWDM transponder platform.

    However, I still wonder what difference it provides compared to existing vendors who are offering DCI products like ADVAs FSP, Coriant Groove G30, Infinera Cloud Xpress, Cisco NCS 2K, Ciena’s Waveserver, & Huawei’s 1800/1800V. . Every vendor has their own DCI products , access products, metro / longhaul metro , core & submarine packet optical DWDM products .

    Does Facebook intend to say it is Open Source Packet DWDM ? Also, there are many vendors who already has thier DCI products are part of Facebook initiated Telecom Infra Project.
    Off course, I would say that all Optical Transport Vendors might vary in Voyager Support. Unfortunately , they have to support/ promote voyager along with thier existing products.
    Are telecom vendors becoming only market piece for voyager ? Or they buy voyager & customize as per their needs.

    Still questions rolling over my mind ? Is any service providers using “White Box ” Packet DWDM platform ? Any idea , when they will start using ? Is anyone started using it ?

    It would be really great if we come to know in single platform about the suppliers started using White Box Packet Optical DWDM platform..

  2. Hi Faizal.

    Congratulations on your blog, you are very clear and objective on this post.
    It helped a lot.

    Best regards from Brazil

  3. Prashant Bhardwaj

    White boxes are deployed at customer premises to provide basic functions like L2/L3, encryption whereas most of CPE features move to cloud.

  4. Hello Faisal, good report!!!!!

    I agree 99.9% let me tell you why. Telcos & service providers are ready to use white boxes in their networks. In fact some of them are really active in the Open Compute Project (OCP) framework, because they are planning to migrate to SDN & NFV in the short term. One example is AT&T and the PoC CORD.

    Regards from Spain.

  5. Good example on the “White boxes” world Faisal..Keep it up..

    there is small typo on your article..

    “This is in contrast to a closed switch that comes as one package including the hardware and the software. Fox example, when you buy a catalyst switch from Cisco, you are obliged to use Cisco IOS as its operating system.”

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