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The Rise of the White Box in Web-scale Networking

March 23, 2017

Software rules the day in the networking world, although it’s taken many years to arrive at this point. The stringent demands of mobility, the cloud and the services economy have required networks to transform to web scale, and that means doing away with expensive, inflexible and difficult-to-maintain legacy hardware.

Today’s networks are powered by software riding on white boxes, and according to a recent article from Network World (News - Alert), we largely have the Open Compute Project to thank for that. The group strives to develop and enable efficient server, storage and data center architectures for scalable computing. And the design must be lightweight and affordable, which means legacy, proprietary boxes need to go.

The movement is being powered by a number of technology trends, and cloud infrastructure is one of the key ones. Cloud giants Amazon, Facebook (News - Alert) and Google have been among the first supporters of the Open Compute Project as they need to build out their networks affordably, using inherent scalability and flexibility. These companies have built their infrastructure to Web-scale proportions, largely using white box hardware running Linux. And with more personnel skilled and evangelizing Linux, operations and management costs may be kept low.

“As for what’s inside, the guts of most white boxes come from the same places Cisco (News - Alert), et al, get their components,” wrote Mike Sheldon, chief commercial officer at SMS | CURVATURE. The company is a global provider of IT infrastructure and data center solutions and has witnessed the global digital networking transformation first hand. “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.” 

SDN is another important factor in the shift toward open source and white boxes, as hardware needs to be interoperable to handle the demands of a variety of software. White box vendors are increasingly offering more support and services with their hardware, making them an attractive option for customers who want to avoid expensive vendor lock-in along with the hassles of dealing with a large, cumbersome vendor.

The Open Compute Project recently rolled out an online directory of open source-design products at their U.S. Summit Event. The directory is designed to help small users find products formerly accessible only to the giant networking hardware vendors so they can incorporate them into their portfolios, increasing their chances of market acceptance.

Sheldon writes that those wishing to make the move to white boxes don’t have to do so all at once, but can take a more measured approach. “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.”

Whatever the rate of adoption, it seems clear that software running on white boxes is becoming a significant network disruptor. As the Open Compute Project continues to evangelize the merits of open source and white boxes while working to make them more accessible, they are slowly but steadily changing how Web-scale networks are architected and managed.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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