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The market for software networking has fragmented into a number of key uses cases, including software-defined WAN and data center networking. A number of new suppliers are positioning their software as a broad network operating system platform to drive white box switching and routing applications.
A network operating system (NOS) is defined as software -- which is sold separately from switching or routing hardware -- that runs on standard server hardware and offers open APIs for customization. The standard hardware can be white box switches, x86 servers or ARM processors, for example.
Network operating system advantages
Proponents of the new NOS offer a number of potential benefits for their products, including cost advantages. In addition to lower purchasing costs, the new NOS may offer some of the following benefits:
- improved performance and lower latency with software acceleration;
- ease of deployment;
- customization and flexibility with open APIs, with links to popular DevOps tools;
- improved network management via telemetry data; and
- improved integration with software-defined storage.
Not all NOS suppliers offer all of the above-mentioned benefits. IT leaders should evaluate their individual use case requirements in light of specific suppliers' capabilities.
Status of white box switching
White box switches are Ethernet switch hardware -- often based on Broadcom, Mellanox or Intel switching chips -- that are sold independent of the network operating system software. White box switches can offer substantial price benefits as compared with the leading high-speed data center switches from Cisco or Arista.
White box switching is quite popular among hyperscale cloud providers, which typically employ their own internally developed operating systems. White box switches with independent NOS software are being deployed by tier-two cloud providers, some service providers and organizations with greenfield data center builds. The majority of enterprise IT customers currently buy traditional Ethernet switches as a bundled appliance.
The network operating system generally supports extensive routing functionality, in addition to Ethernet switching. Enterprises and service providers can flexibly and inexpensively deploy white box routers at various locations, such as internet peering points and at the edge of the network.
Network operating system examples
Open source or standards-driven examples include Microsoft's Software for Open Networking in the Cloud, Facebook's Open Switching System and Open Compute Platform, and AT&T's Disaggregated Network Operating System -- from its Vyatta acquisition.
Suppliers with existing products and customers include Cumulus Networks, Big Switch Networks and Pluribus Networks.
Network operating system advantages and disadvantages
The variety of network operating system software available on the market represents new choices for IT and network professionals, especially regarding greenfield data center deployments. A network operating system deployment with white box switches can yield substantial cost and flexibility benefits. NOS software can also be deployed tactically as a router replacement for internet or edge routing functionality.
Deploying new NOS products does come with some risk, especially given the number of small, startup suppliers entering the market. IT leaders should start with trial projects to carefully examine network operating system advantages with their new data center build requirements and work closely with integration partners.