Open source a driver for merchant chips

White-box networking equipment makers aren't designing their own chips, they're using off-the-shelf solutions. Add open-source software, and things are changing quickly.

balticservers data center
Credit: Fleshas

Incumbent networking gear makers have often designed their own chips. It's what has created differentiation between products.

That custom networking chip design, in some cases, was also behind growth in the technology bubble of the '90s. Some companies were considered better than others because of their silicon design.

However, a new breed of manufacturers aren't doing this custom work. Those suppliers, like up-and-coming player Arista, are simply using off-the-shelf silicon.

Their ASIC, or Application-Specific Integrated Circuits, are still designed for networking, but they are generic. They're called "merchant" chips, or merchant silicon. They're in switches, along with the included software to run them.

Software

However, an even newer idea is that enterprises should be able to build or load whatever software they want onto these merchant silicon-built switches.

The idea is that enterprises might save money by managing the boxes' software themselves, or they can make the switches perform specific tasks geared towards specific enterprises.

Facebook, for example, is keen to see more flexible network infrastructures. It has its own switch code-named Wedge, and Linux software code-named FBOSS.

This trend is called disaggregation. And in a logical progression, open source is making inroads in disaggregation.

Cost of development

Why merchant chips? Because it's cheaper, according to switch-maker Arista's chairman and chief development officer Andy Bechtolsheim. He recently spoke to Don Clark, a journalist who has been writing about the merchant silicon phenomenon in the Wall Street Journal.

Bechtolsheim told Clark that despite own-chip advantages, the design process is so expensive that any equipment maker would have to sell millions of units to make custom design work.

Arista only uses merchant chips. It uses chips from Intel's Fulcrum Microsystems and Broadcom, for example.

Major switch makers Cisco and Juniper use some merchant chips, but predominantly use their own chips in "high-end" products, Clark says.

Open source

Broadcom and Cavium are two dominant merchant chips makers. There are also a few others. Intel owns Fulcrum Microsystems, one of the chips Arista uses, and Intel itself has an upcoming chip with open-source software that's code-named Red Rock Canyon. It will be available in 2015 Q3. Note the term "open-source" here.

Broadcom

Open source is, in fact, the new theme in all of this. The murmurings from some of these chip makers is that it should be open source that drives everything.

In other words, we may be seeing the beginning of an open-computing swing in data center switching, driven in part by these merchant chip manufacturers.

Broadcom, for example, has a new open source software solution for customizing data centers that it calls Open Network Switch Library (OpenNSL).

A feature of OpenNSL is that it has a common, hardware-agnostic, unified API for Ethernet switches.

Cavium

Cavium, another important merchant silicon maker, pitches its products as fitting in to an "era in open Ethernet switching."

It's a follower of the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), which is an open source initiative aimed at de-coupling Ethernet switch hardware from networking software.

The idea is that networking software should be written independently of the switch's chip, by anyone—a pure incarnation of software defined networking (SDN).

Open Compute Project

Cavium also subscribes to the Open Compute Project (OCP) which, on the networking side, broadly intends to develop the most efficient data center designs through the sharing of "ideas, specifications and other intellectual property."

Comparison with PCs?

And where's this all headed? Well, merchant chip adoption for networking is remarkably similar to what happened in computer chip design, Clark notes in his article.

He says standard chips and software "made compatible products that are often distinguished mainly by price."

The difference was, of course, that in that case you still had to buy a Windows license. As open source takes hold in this networking switch scenario, you probably won't need anything like that.

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