The future of networking: It’s in a white box

The days of vendors dictating what networking equipment you should buy are numbered thanks to the work of the Open Compute Project

Whether it’s food, beverages or automobiles, I want options and don’t want to be told what to do. I feel the same way about networking equipment. 

I’ve resented the fact that select vendors have had too much control in dictating choices over the years. I don’t think users should be told what, when and how they should buy, deploy and upgrade their network equipment. Luckily, those days are numbered thanks in part to the good work of the Open Compute Project, whose mission is to design and enable the delivery of the most efficient server, storage and data center hardware designs for scalable computing. 

+ Also on Network World: White boxes are now ready for prime time +

The future of networking is fast approaching—and it’s in a white box. White box switching isn’t new, but until recently, it came with a heavy cost: You had to have an army (or at least a platoon) of techies, especially those who love Linux, to administer and manage the gear. That’s why much of the first wave of backers came from the ranks of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Simply put, they have deep Linux bench strength and proven experience. 

A couple of years ago, the common thinking was while you could save money by opting for white box’s generic hardware over OEMs’, the savings were blown on operational costs. This is not so true anymore as hands-on Linux expertise becomes more prevalent. Equally encouraging is seeing big names such as Dell and HP entering the mix. Their boxes even come with ready-to-run network operating systems from companies such as Cumulus Networks and Pica8, removing a huge concern. 

White boxes can hold their own

As for what’s inside, the guts of most white boxes come from the same places Cisco, et al, get their components. Why they cost more is their software and fancy logo on the box. White boxes have shown they can hold their own in software-defined networking (SDN) deployments and supporting industry standards. 

OEMs defend their shaky ground by saying white boxes lack functionality, but they need to face the facts: Many of the newest and fanciest bells and whistles do more to justify inflated price tags than drive major performance improvements. Typically, all the latest and greatest features aren’t used that much. So, perhaps the biggest sacrifice is understanding your white box is more a Prius than a Tesla. 

Technical support for white boxes also is improving every day. The players are big pushers of open computing standards, so users are given choices and control over their hardware, as well as the software that will run on it. White boxes promise high levels of freedom for networking. 

Topping my list of other things I like about white boxes is how adoption helps avoid vendor lock-in and OEM shipping delays. Ever been hung out long after your expected delivery date for your new Cisco switch? White boxes are plentiful and come from a growing variety of sources, thus reducing potential delivery delays. This also makes a difference when you suddenly need another box or want to take advantage of white boxes as an excellent self-sparing option. With OCP-compliant white boxes, you’re no longer at the mercy of OEMs’ sometimes-slow or incomplete fixes to software bugs. 

There’s more good news. During the OCP’s recent U.S. Summit, the organization debuted an online directory of open source-design products. The aim: to help small users find products the monoliths already know about and use in order to speed overall market acceptance. 

To start your own white box initiative, you don’t have to go all-in, like back in the day with your Cisco network. Instead, it’s advisable to play the field a little bit to determine how white box deployments can be phased in to optimize early successes. Remember, you have choices and control. Don’t make a huge commitment until both are in your favor.

And even if you are not ready this instant, don’t let your OEM know. Instead, whisper (or perhaps shout) “white box” in your next conversation. Perhaps you’ll be rewarded by getting a better discount on your next branded box.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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