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4 trends spurring the evolution of network hardware

Major trends in network hardware highlight enterprise interest in vendor-agnostic options and open models. But legacy designs could stand in the way of adoption.

For years, vendors have dictated innovations in networking. They developed and manufactured their own chips, appliances and network designs, and enterprises consumed what they produced.

Because of this traditional vendor-driven process, many enterprises got stuck with networks that were difficult to adapt and modernize, said Dinesh Dutt, engineer, book author and co-founder of Stardust Systems, a network observability company with a focus on open source software.

Recent networking innovations have battled the vendor-heavy model, pushing for open networking and scalability. While most of the prevalent developments have emerged in software, Dutt said the industry is also seeing an evolution in network hardware.

The major network hardware trends target changes in the following areas:

  1. how switching chips are built;
  2. how boxes are built;
  3. how OSes run on top of those boxes; and
  4. how boxes are physically connected.

Some of the battles have already been won -- such as the rise of merchant silicon -- but Dutt said the outcomes of others haven't played out yet.

1. Rise of merchant silicon

The use of merchant silicon for packet forwarding has largely become an industry standard, emerging from what was once a small trend.

Not long ago, networking vendors made their own chips and ran them on proprietary hardware. But those same vendors now often rely on merchant silicon in the form of commodity switching chips from companies like Broadcom and Marvell.

Dinesh DuttDinesh Dutt

Arista, for example, built its business on a merchant silicon model, instead of "designing and building its own switching chip," Dutt said. Companies like Arrcus, DriveNets and Volta Networks have also based their business models around merchant silicon and white box networking.

Some networking vendors have even introduced their own merchant silicon. In 2019, Cisco announced its Silicon One chip that supports white box switches, in addition to its own hardware.

Dutt compared the rise of merchant silicon to the evolution of watches from Rolexes to commodity watches. At one time, a person had to buy an expensive Rolex watch in order to have a working watch. But, now, anybody can buy a cheap watch that tells the time accurately.

In the same way, he said, less expensive commodity chips have replaced traditional packet forwarding hardware, such as application-specific integrated circuits and processors. These chips are not only cheaper, but offer enterprises a broader range of options and flexibility in their network designs.

SmartNICs see mixed potential

A related trend to merchant silicon is the development of smart network interface cards (NICs), functional accelerator cards (FACs) and data processing units (DPUs). These chips take on additional functions -- such as computing, routing, storage and firewalling -- to negate some of the processing load on servers.

Cloud providers have primarily led the charge with smartNIC adoption, benefiting from the opportunity to optimize computing and bandwidth costs on such a massive scale, Dutt said. Enterprises, however, usually don't have the same level of scale and wouldn't benefit as much from smartNIC adoption.

"SmartNICs are great at offloading," Dutt said. "The question becomes at what scale, at what performance and at what cost?"

That said, some analysts expect enterprises to find value in smartNICs, FACs and DPUs as more use cases emerge. In its 2020 "Hype Cycle for Enterprise Networking," Gartner listed FACs at the beginning of the cycle, likely to reach the "plateau of productivity" in five to 10 years. Gartner said it expected enterprise adoption to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 115% by 2024.

Diagram of 4 major network hardware trends
Explore the four major trends in network hardware.

2. White boxes and fixed form factor switches

Most networking vendors have an appliance-driven ecosystem. As a result, enterprises have based their network designs and management around the appliances they've deployed and the specific configurations for them, rather than on their business requirements, Dutt said.

"Enterprise network operators not only learned how to type a command on a box, but they also learned network design from those same vendors," Dutt said. "This meant that the certifications issued were all structured around the strengths of a box rather than general network principles."

Instead, he added, vendors should move away from appliance models and focus more on providing a platform.

White box switches could help introduce a more platform-driven strategy. With white box switching, enterprises can buy commodity appliances that don't have pre-loaded OSes, enabling them to choose the network OS they prefer. Network teams could better customize their network designs for the applications they need to support and reduce Capex.

But white box adoption has lagged among enterprises, largely due to integration complexity and familiarity with legacy vendors. In some ways, the customization that white boxes offer acts as a deterrent because some enterprises don't know which OS to deploy or instead prefer brand names they recognize.

Fixed form factor switches

Another networking appliance trend Dutt mentioned is the move away from large, chassis-based switches to fixed form factor switches. Sometimes called pizza boxes because of their shape, these switches are small, flat and stackable. They are also easier to troubleshoot in the event of failure.

"Those fixed form factor switches have much simpler failures and are cheaper to buy and replace than the single monolithic software that was chassis," Dutt said. Because of their smaller size, fixed form factor switches can help reduce an organization's footprint, overhead and power consumption.

3. OS to manage network hardware

White box switching can't be successful without the ability for enterprises to choose which OS they want to manage their network hardware. OSes have experienced changes of their own, due in part to an industry push for interoperability and open networking.

Consider network design independent of vendors. Consider a network design that is specific to your applications.
Dinesh DuttEngineer, author and co-founder of Stardust Systems

Over the past few years, many organizations have worked to develop open source network OSes (NOSes) that can help reduce dependence on proprietary hardware. One example Dutt cited was the Software for Open Networking in the Cloud project, originally from Microsoft. Some networking vendors and startups have also tried to popularize open source NOSes, he said.

Despite the industry's move to support more NOS options, open source OSes face similar battles that white box switching has encountered, such as complexity and lack of support. And the fates of white boxes and open OSes are tied together.

"The lack of a NOS for white boxes hobbles the ability to consume a white box," Dutt said. For both to gain traction, Dutt said they require the same design shift from an appliance model to a platform model.

4. More options for network cabling

Ultimately, network appliances and OSes won't work if they aren't connected. Wireless and cellular connectivity have seen the development of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, and enterprises have started deploying both in their LANs and WANs.

But data centers can't use wireless for connectivity, instead they need network cables. While network cabling has remained relatively quiet in terms of emerging trends, some changes have occurred, Dutt said.

Traditionally, when enterprises bought hardware from certain vendors, they also had to buy matching cables from the same vendor. But, just as network appliances and OSes have seen a shift toward openness and vendor-agnostic options, it's increasingly possible for enterprises to buy cabling from other providers.

"Originally, if you bought hardware from Cisco, you had to buy cabling that only Cisco provided," he said. "Now, it's not hard for you to find hardware from Cisco but cabling from Finisar directly."

How to build or revamp network designs

With various changes in networking, enterprises might find it difficult to know which upgrades to make or how to design a new network.

Dutt advised enterprises to prioritize the following steps when considering network hardware changes:

  1. Use fixed form factor switches as much as possible.
  2. Go to the simplest network design.
  3. Don't rely on vendors determining what the design is.
  4. Work with server teams to simplify your network design.
  5. Think about failure domains differently -- it's not about an individual failure, but about the network as a system failing.
  6. Understand network tools, and find ones that help you understand your network.

Ultimately, Dutt encouraged enterprises to start simple.

"Go back to the basic principles," Dutt said. "Consider network design independent of vendors. Consider a network design that is specific to your applications. And work with the server team rather than sitting across the table from them."

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