Evolution of Disaggregated Switching: Bringing Whitebox to the Masses

Evolution of Disaggregated Switching: Bringing Whitebox to the Masses

For years, hyper-scale technology companies like Google have flexed their IT muscles and considerable buying power to create highly specialized operating environments with equally optimized cost structures. In the networking space, this has given birth to the concept of white box switching.

White box switching refers to the ability to use generic, off-the-shelf switching and routing hardware, in the forwarding plane of a software-defined network. White box switches are really just that—blank standard hardware. (Source: SDx Central)

As with many innovations that have arisen from the hyper-scale space, white box switching isn’t readily consumable by the broader market. IT departments that are already challenged with simply keeping the lights on in their existing environments can’t afford to create operational teams and practices for developing open source tools and integrating operating systems onto bare metal hardware. Furthermore, the current business model for network switches today consists of Original Device Manufacturers (ODMs) selling to vendors that in turn create integrated products. As a result, ODMs have very little support capacity. So, “support” in a white box world relies heavily on the user community.

Despite the challenges, the model is very attractive. Going direct to the manufacturers allows customers to reduce capital costs. Then, it’s a matter of finding a Network Operating System (NOS) that meets their needs both technically and operationally.

To that end, several NOS vendors have come on the scene in recent years. Companies like Big Switch, Cumulus, IP Infusion and Pica8 provide software that runs on bare metal switches conforming to requirements set out by Open Compute Projects (OCPs) and Open Network Install Environment (ONIE). Of course, there’s still that little matter of support.

Enter brite-box…

Brite-box switching is shorthand for branded white-box switching. The key tenants of a brite-box switch are disaggregation (hardware and software/OS can be decoupled), reduced capital cost (i.e., white-box economics), commercial software (versus roll your own), and the option to receive service/support from a single supplier. (Source: Andrew Lerner, Gartner)

The brite-box market has emerged via traditional networking vendors partnering with the aforementioned NOS vendors. The networking vendors generally bring the value of an established supply chain, strong professional services, and a mature support organization. They sell standard hardware with their own brand affixed at a lower markup than usual and pre-loaded with your choice of NOS. They also offer experienced professional services to help integrate these new platforms into your environment. Finally, they offer support on the hardware, as it does carry their brand, however, software support is still the domain of the NOS vendor. As these vendors tend to be more nascent, they have limited support capabilities generally comprised of user forums and outsourced call centers. So, the weak link in the chain is in the area most prone to support issues.

Where are the NOS offers from established networking vendors? That’s the very question we asked here at Avaya. With the entire market looking to reap the benefits of disaggregation, the primary obstacle seems to be the lack of a mature NOS with Enterprise class support behind it. That’s precisely what Avaya is announcing today. We’ve decoupled our mature, widely proven Network Operating System software from our branded hardware and created an opportunity for specialty solutions providers to take advantage of the white box consumption model without disrupting their operational environment. It’s yet another proof point of Avaya truly transforming itself into a software and services company.

This new initiative enables solution providers to buy off-the-shelf hardware from certified manufacturers. These manufacturers pre-load the Avaya NOS, which has been deployed globally for nearly two decades and across millions of ports. So, when a switch is shipped, the solution provider as well as the end customer has the peace of mind that they’re getting a platform tested against over 100,000 scenarios collected through years of live deployment experience. Furthermore, the first line of support is Avaya. The solution provider makes one call to our world-renowned support organization that has years of experience and direct access to the software development team. If the issue is isolated to hardware, a warm hand-off takes place to the manufacturer for repairs, replacements, etc. No finger pointing. No frustration. No sacrifice from the current model.

The whole experience should sound somewhat familiar, as it closely resembles buying branded switches today. That’s the point. Disaggregation should be a welcome change in the industry. Vendors shed the overhead of hardware that provides no differentiation for their product. So, why aren’t more vendors moving in this direction? That’s a question we haven’t been able to answer.

Avaya Network Operating System software will be offered exclusively through systems integrators certified in the program and qualifying for direct purchases with approved ODMs. Visit Avaya.com for more information on Avaya’s disaggregated model. For more information on becoming a certified partner or locating a partner in your market, contact Avaya.

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