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White box switching, SDN and NFV prompt carrier networking gear revolution

For service providers considering a networking gear upgrade, white box switching plus SDN in the data center and NFV in the core offer scalability, lower cost and better margins.

Carriers and service providers are in a position to benefit from a move away from specialized, proprietary network hardware in the data center to white box switches and x86-based equipment, even more than enterprises.

Service providers have long struggled under the yoke of high-cost networking gear. They need the highest possible throughput and lowest possible latency from their network appliances more than all but the largest enterprise networks. This goes both for edge- and middle-tier switching and routing gear and for a broad variety of higher-level service nodes for everything from load balancing to security services.

In switch environments -- both providers' own and those they may be managing for a client on the client's premises -- adding new features can require upgrades to the switches, possibly to handle new protocols or to provide for a new automation overlay. Sometimes, the only way to get new functionality is by upgrading the hardware, because some of the intelligence is embedded in it, and the software providing the rest of the intelligence is tightly coupled to it.

Not only does this carrier-grade equipment cost a lot more than enterprise gear and limit the available functionality, it also shapes the service providers' ability to scale. For example, when the provider has enough capacity in a redundant pair of firewalls to service 50 customers, when customer 51 comes in, do they scale up to the next size the vendor offers and buy a pair of firewalls that can support 500 customers? Or, do they add another pair of the same to handle the next 50? Short of making a platform change, the increments the provider can consider are determined by the vendor's product line.

SDN and white box switches offer providers flexibility

Two trends are creating options for service providers that change the relationship between carriers and internet service providers and their suppliers: first, software-defined networking (SDN) plus white box switching in the data center; second, network functions virtualization (NFV) in the core.

Service providers have long struggled under the yoke of high-cost networking gear.

Classic SDN is based on the idea of moving a lot of the sophisticated smarts in the network out of the switches into an SDN controller and associated network applications. When this paradigm is adopted, the actual switches -- sometimes demoted to the name "data plane devices" -- become generic, which creates the option for white box switching. A white box switch is simply a switch meant to be managed by SDN and to which a service provider can download the switch OS they want.

Because white box switches aren't brand-name networking gear and use an x86 for intelligence instead of a custom CPU, white box switches are generally significantly cheaper to buy and maintain, as well as conducive to a replace-on-break strategy that makes maintenance obsolete. Service providers using white box networking for customer switching have been able to reduce prices, thanks to lower hardware and software costs, and increase margins, thanks to increased automation.

NFV and VNFs offer scale as needed

Matching this kind of flexibility, NFV is based on the premise that carrier-grade network functions can also be provided by software running on x86 hardware, rather than on traditional, proprietary networking gear. The key is to make sure virtual network functions (VNFs) that can provide some subset of firewall services, for example, can be scaled horizontally, using load balancing or other means of partitioning the work; and spun up, when needed, using automation. This breaks the cost curve by using standard data center server hardware instead of custom silicon.

NFV also addresses the issue of scale by allowing service providers to add resources as needed, rather than by making costly bets on future demand when buying networking gear. Providers can maintain a safety margin of compute capacity and spin up additional instances when needed to handle that 51st customer, then add capacity in whatever increments make sense.

Networking gear revolution gets real

Carriers and service providers are now able to explore SDN,  NFV and white box switching, and benefit from the move away from specialized network hardware and onto x86-based equipment. Over time, they can expect even more options to open through the combination of these ideas, including pushing more network function to the middle tier and edge of the network using VNFs on those x86 white box switches, distributing the workload dynamically and flexibly.

Next Steps

Find out if white box switches are for your organization.

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This was last published in April 2017

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