The rise of white-box switches

Software-defined networking centralizes control logic and argues for generic switch hardware -- and should drive strong adoption of white-box switches

With all the hubbub around software-defined networking and white-box network switching, it's time to gauge the impact these new trends will have on both data center deployments and the switching market in the coming years.

Steve Garrison, vice president of marketing at Pica8, and Seamus Crehan, president of Crehan Research, have teamed up to forecast the growth of SDN and white-box switching adoption rates. The future may not be here yet, but it's coming. --Paul Venezia

White box switches in the new data center

The phrase "white box" has long been used to apply to no-name computers. The same ODMs (original design manufacturers) that produced them are getting into the game of manufacturing white-box switches. White-box switches look just like any other switch -- and their manufacturers will be familiar to those who have purchased white-box servers: Accton, Celestica, Quanta Computer, and so on.

White-box switches are getting more attention in next-gen data center deployments, as a number of software-defined networking (SDN) startups offer solutions that include them. Enterprises are wondering how white-box switches will impact their data center plans.

Software defines the box

White-box switches are useless without software -- every switch needs an operating system. This OS needs to seamlessly integrate with existing L2/L3 topologies and support a basic set of features. Beyond this, there should be new capabilities delivered as a result of "opening up" the network switch.

White-box switches must first and foremost have hardware-agnostic network operating systems. This enables an abstraction layer on the bare-metal switch, just like Linux and Windows provide on the server side. White boxes are ideal for Linux-based OSes. Linux offers so many advantages (including open/free tools like GCC, a native environment for Python, and the ability to compile your own app on board) that it's far and away the best foundation for reaping the benefits of white-box switching.

How do you put the OS on the metal? Some vendors sell a complete solution with the OS already installed on the white box, while others set up distributors to provide the metal -- and you buy the OS direct from the software vendor. Both approaches have merit, depending on the scale of the deployment and the desire to have a single or dual source of accountability.

Beyond the operating system, white-box switches are more valuable if they interact with SDN controllers. In fact, the best switch OS products have interfaces to multiple controllers. When we talk about controllers, many people think of OpenFlow, but in reality vCenter Orchestration from VMware is a controller (something has to "control" the VM lifecycle). A key attribute of white-box switch OSes is the ability to plug into OpenStack or into open source OpenFlow controllers like Ryu, Floodlight, or most recently Open Daylight.

The growing market for white-box switches

What does the market look like for white-box switches? We'll start by looking at the overall Ethernet switch market. Within that market, we'll drill down to the cloud (Web 2.0, portals, and hyperscale) and enterprise segments separately, since their trajectories and technology adoption rates vary.

The rise of white-box switches

Overall, the data center Ethernet switch market has seen tremendous growth and investment over the past four years, despite a constrained IT spending environment (see Figure 1). This revenue growth is even more impressive given the shift to fixed, top-of-rack switch architectures at the expense of more pricey, modular, chassis-based data center switches. Fixed, top-of-rack deployments far outpaced the overall data center switch market, with revenues more than tripling.

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