HP deal marks milestone for open source networking hardware

As disaggregation grows, the days of expensive, proprietary networking hardware are numbered.

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If you still harbored any doubts that the web is now driving the future of IT, last week's announcement that HP will offer disaggregated products for web-scale data centers via deals with Cumulus and Accton should be enough to convince you.

See also: HP latest to unbundle switch hardware, software

The deal itself is hardly monumental. HP inked a pair of "partnerships that will produce a branded white box switch capable of running multiple network operating systems." And it comes on the heels of HP's deal with Foxconn last year to build inexpensive cloud computing servers.

But as HP joins Juniper, Dell, and many others supporting the concepts behind Facebook's Open Compute project, it's becoming clear that the era of high-priced, proprietary networking hardware—not to mention servers—is drawing to a close.

And the web shall lead them…

The biggest, most advanced companies, the ones operating at "web scale," are increasingly investing in cheap, generic, "white-box" hardware and using it to run whatever operating systems and software best fit their needs. That market has now grown to the point that the top networking vendors can no longer ignore the trend and have been forced to respond with offerings that take the new reality into account. Even if these products offer a paltry return compared to the cushy margins on their traditional gear, something is better than nothing. And as is often the case, they hope to make up at least some of the difference by selling "follow on service and support."

Good luck with that. Just as the web has disrupted other consumer and enterprise business models, a similar dynamic is now sucking the money out of selling enterprise hardware.

Way back in 2013, I wrote that "if you want to see the future of enterprise technology, take a close look at companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook."

Just as HP has been forced to change how it does business to accommodate those leading-edge customers, the rest of the enterprise technology market won't be far behind.

Market window closing

For now, there's still plenty of room for expensive, proprietary networking hardware, but that won't last forever. Inevitably, these web-scale white-box environments will trickle down into more and more use cases, continuing to shrink the market for proprietary solutions and put ever-increasing pressure on traditional networking vendors.

The biggest bellwether, of course, is Cisco, which was forced to eat CEO John Chambers' words when it joined the OCP project late last year—after dissing it for months.

That was a big deal, but for now Cisco remains heavily dependent on proprietary products. Making the transition from that world to the new one won't be easy for any networking vendor. But, as last week's HP announcement proves, vendors really don't have much of a choice.

For enterprises buying networking hardware, this is a mixed bag. In the short run, the transition will no doubt be bumpy, with lower prices balanced out by the difficulty in finding—and managing—the right solutions in an unstable market. In the long run, though, it seems clear to me that OCP is doing networking users a big favor by helping to pull costs out of the industry.

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