On the day of writing this article, customers can buy bare-metal or white-box network switches and load any one from (at least) three flavors of Linux-based network operating systems, into it. If that makes you hope that network switches may one day become like general-purpose servers which allow any OS to be loaded into the switch (basically hardware is separate from software), yes it might. For large cloud service providers, this is already true. But will this trend catch up in the SMB/Enterprise switch markets? Only time will tell!
Each of the three network operating systems (mentioned above) is compatible with only certain versions of OEM switch models and maybe available only on bulk (at least with some OEMs). Today, these bare-metal and white-box switches – switches that come without a network operating system and switches that come with thrid-party Operating System that can be replaced/ported (click to read an article that explains the differences between the two, elaborately) – are driven by large data centers & cloud service providers that employ SDN controllers. This approach enables data centers to reduce their Cap-ex, Op-ex, and also enables them to procure switches manufactured by multiple vendors (and manage them) under one roof.
Have a look at some Network OS flavors (available today) and hardware vendors supporting them –
1. Cumulus Linux – Edge Core, Dell, Penguin Computing, Quanta, Agema, etc.
2. PICA8 – Accton, Quanta, etc.
3. Open Network Linux – Big Switch (SwitchLight OS), etc.
If you want to know more about white-box switches and their applications for SDN, read this article.
In this site, we are more concerned about Enterprise/SMB networks, than data center/cloud service provider networks. So, can the bare-metal/white-box switches invade Enterprise/SMB networking market anytime soon?
There is a good chance they will.
Think about switches in the access/distribution layers – they mostly forward packets based on simple rules and don’t require all the sophistication/features provided by the Network OS software bundled by most network switch vendors, today.
The reduction of cap-ex and op-ex (especially in networks powered by multi-vendor switches) is considerable when we separate the switch hardware from the software. If you are able to buy hardware from multiple vendors, are able to load the same Network OS software across all the switches, and manage all of them centrally, wouldn’t you be interested?
Projects like ONIE (Open Network Install Environment) have been created to provide the standardization required for different flavors of Network OS to work on hardware switches manufactured by different vendors.
The question is: When will enterprise customers start demanding bare-metal/white-box switches and enterprise-specific network OS software? If/when they do that, perhaps, we will see enterprise and SMB networks slowly transition from proprietary switch platforms to more open/interoperable platforms.
Would you not like to buy multi-vendor switches like how you buy servers and load your preferred network OS on all of them? It is definitely possible – even today. Ask for it – you may get it sooner.
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