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)
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.
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.
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 ?
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:
- Do you agree with the applications, I listed.
- Did I miss out on any important info about the white box. Feel free to tell me.
I love to hear your opinions here !