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White Box Switches Can Help Carriers Too, If They Let Them

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White Box Switches Can Help Carriers Too, If They Let Them

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White Box NFV Bare Metal Network-Functions Virtualization SDN

A discussion about white-box switches at the Carrier Network Virtualization conference included the usual talk about prices and opex as motivations for adopting white boxes — off-the-shelf switch hardware, also called bare-metal switching.

But it was toward the end that the moderator, Managing Director Edward Schneider of Quan Funds, pointed out one major obstacle that carriers face. “The carriers have to have the courage to break away from Cisco,” he said.

It’s vendor lock-in, and not just cheaper boxes, that makes white boxes so potentially powerful, panelists agreed. That pertains to lock-in by any vendor; Schneider brought up Cisco because of a recent discussion he’d had with a carrier that was dependent on Cisco and, therefore, on Cisco’s supply chain as well.

Breaking that dependence would open up carriers to a wider ecosystem that’s innovating at a greater pace — such as what’s found in the open-source world.

“All the innovation is open-source now,” said Vinay Bannai, Paypal‘s SDN architect and a participant on Schneider’s panel. “The question is: Will the hardware vendors be able to keep up with that and provide the necessary APIs so I can have an agile data center?”

Five 9s from a White Box?

No incumbent vendor was on the panel, so panelists made an easy target of Cisco and, by extension, all the other incumbent equipment vendors.

But panelists did have a point. The success of hyperscale data centers with white-box switching — defining “success” as just plain getting the stuff working — suggests it’s possible for the white box to help the carrier network as well.

Whether that happens depends on whether carriers are willing to change. One stumbling block is the “five nines” mentality, which says hardware has to exhibit 99.999 percent uptime. That was a perfectly reasonable requirement for the old telephone network, but by distributing network functions among farms of servers, carriers could buttress those potential points of failure. If one server goes down, quickly shift the traffic to the next server. The key is to think of these things not as catastrophic events but as small inconveniences, like one street lamp going out on a street where dozens of others keep working.

“Design in that mindset — that’s the lesson we should take from the hyperscale guys,” said Andy Randall, general manager of networking for Metaswitch.

Carriers could also help themselves by rethinking the philosophy behind their SDN plans, which focus on creating something that the current network can use. “The data center guys have thrown that [thinking] out,” Randall said.

Representing an end-user who buys into the white-box idea, Paypal’s Bannai said he likes white boxes because he’d like to see network operations fit into a DevOps model, with programmability replacing command-line configuration.

“Some hardware vendors are embracing OpenFlow and the ability to have programmable APIs, but it’s not fast enough. There is some resistance there,” Bannai said, adding that white boxes might help push these ideas forward.

Where Paypal could use white boxes is in the top-of-rack position, Bennai said. Within its equipment racks, the company is running virtual switches. They don’t eat up much CPU capacity because of advances available in Intel‘s Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK). “It has brought that CPU utilization to a very small fraction” of what it used to be, and running an overlay network doesn’t take up many more cycles.


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