Enterprise disaggregation is inevitable

abstract rack of servers datacenter networking hardware

Time unbundles all network elements as benefits enjoyed by service providers hit private networks beyond CPE

Back in March, the issue was raised whether disaggregation – decoupling network software from hardware for lower cost, choice and flexibility – could play in the enterprise as well as the service provider realm.

The answer, judging by recent events, is that it can. But currently to a lesser extent than it does with service providers, who will still reap most of the benefits of initial enterprise deployments.

Announcements by Pica8, Ciena and AT&T that they plan to offer bare metal and white box switches, and virtual network functions as customer premises equipment, do signal that enterprises are indeed a target for disaggregation. But penetration is currently limited to that – CPE supplied and managed by service providers for the purpose of connecting that enterprise to its service network.

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: AT&T looking at white boxes as CPE+

Disaggregation is likely to spread deeper into an enterprises’ own private network but the timeframe for doing so is much farther out, analysts say. Until then, disaggregation’s promise of choice, flexibility and lower cost will continue to be enjoyed by the service provider even though platforms sit on the customer premises.

“In the MSP (managed service provider) scenario, the benefit to the enterprise is secondary,” says Mike Fratto, principal analyst for enterprise networking and data center technology at Current Analysis. “For the MSP, a VNF running on a CPE is far more cost effective for them.”

“CPE is not as critical for (the enterprise), they’d be happy to have someone else manage it for them,” says Lee Doyle, principal at Doyle Research. “From a service provider standpoint, it makes sense to go white box instead of deploying tons of routers. It’s a more complex thing for enterprises to take on SDN and white box” with a legacy brownfield environment supporting thousands of applications on hundreds of devices.

This complexity was apparent at last week’s Open Networking Summit in Santa Clara, CA. A handful of enterprises speaking at the conference expressed interest in SDNs and disaggregated hardware and software, but caution and hesitation in disrupting a brownfield environment that’s already working and operated by personnel reluctant to change how they manage it.

It will determine when and how deep disaggregation dives into the enterprise’s private network.

“Disaggregation will make incemental, steady progress within the broader Fortune 500, though that progress will by no means be immediate,” states IDC analyst Brad Casemore in an as yet unreleased report on network disaggregation. “Just as with software-defined networking, not everybody is ready to embrace change and be an early adopter.”

The IDC report, though, also states that disaggregation is an inevitability in the enterprise – more specifically, large enterprises – because it offers a means of standardizing network resources while allowing for continuous software innovation “beyond the confines of vendor-specific product release schedules.” This is in addition to the capital and operational cost reduction often viewed as the primary driver of the trend.

What’s more, network disaggregation is aligned with the agility and continuous innovation embodied in DevOps environments, where new IT developments are readily put into production use for business or operational gain.

But just as they’ve done up to now, enterprises will count on their tried, true and trusted OEM vendors – Cisco, HP, Juniper, Arista and Dell – for disaggregated gear rather than white box ODMs offering bare metal switches able to run a variety of operating systems, IDC states. The reason: to limit the amount of disruption a disruptive trend like disaggregation can inflict upon a brownfield environment.

“If network disaggregation was solely the preserve of ODMs and white box, its enterprise prospects would be severely limited,” IDC states. “Enterprises want to buy from known, trusted vendors, and they want the service and support that those vendors provide.”

Which means vendors traditionally offering vertically integrated network hardware and software will have to disrupt themselves to address the disaggregation opportunity. IDC believes Cisco, for example, should open up its merchant silicon-based Nexus 3000 top-of-rack switches with the ONIE boot loader so it can run a variety of third-party operating systems like Cumulus Linux, Big Switch’s Switch Light, Open Network Linux, and Pica8’s PicOS, as well as its own NX-OS.

IDC also believes Cisco should make the Linux-based NX-OS available as a third-party NOS for bare metal switches from ODMs and OEMs.

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: Cisco, Arista disaggregating?+

Arista might want to think about becoming a leading third-party NOS vendor for disaggregation, IDC states, by either offering its EOS operating system open source or as a licensable NOS to bare metal ODM and OEMs. Arista is more threatened by disaggregation than its peers because it is the incumbent vendor in cloud environments where the trend is establishing an initial beachhead.

HP, Juniper and Dell are already disaggregating though HP and Juniper could expand on their initial forays, IDC notes.

So not only is disaggregation an enterprise play, it’s an inevitability. It will just take a while for it to spread beyond CPE as enterprises embrace it, familiarize themselves with it and figure out how to benefit from it while keeping disruption to a minimum.

“The benefits of disaggregation depends very much on the enterprise but I also think that today, the operational burden needed to effectively manage a disaggregated environment in the enterprise is quite high given today's tools and operational experience,” says Current Analysis’ Fratto.

“We’re not there yet,” says Doyle. “But it’ll trickle deeper in there. It might take a while and it’ll be more commercial (vendor than white box). They’ll respond to their customers.”

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