AWS has had a rough couple of weeks. Maybe it was stress-testing its flexible computing infrastructure power on Prime Day last week when the site crashed for hours (I eventually scored a great deal on some wireless cameras). Then there were the recent rumors of the online giant getting into the network switch business, followed by a somewhat wishy-washy and delayed denial days later. It was puzzling to me, and I’m sure it also was for AWS partners such as Cisco Systems.
A few years ago I interviewed with Amazon and had a peek “under the hood” at Jeff Bezos’s “Day One” mantra, which encourages Amazonians to constantly evaluate market disruptive opportunities. The leaked rumors could have been tied to internal investigations around the viability of bringing a white box network solution to market. Whether Amazon jumps into the networking hardware market or not, the news has reignited the discussion around the viability of white box network switches, routers, and associated solutions.
What is a white box?
A white box is a common term in the technology industry that refers to unbranded devices that are built with common, off-the-shelf components. White box products are theoretically less expensive than branded ones, given their ability to leverage the supply chain advantages of volume and scale. I may date myself, but the term conjures up those generic “plain label” items found at the corner grocery back in the late 70s—perhaps that image was what convinced some of you to read this article! Amazon.com , Google , and Facebook , among others, have used contract manufacturers and ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers) in Asia for quite some time to build the white box technology that powers many of the e-commerce and social media services we use daily. However, that’s entirely different than Amazon taking the same platforms and selling them to end customers.
Is cheap hardware enough?
In the networking space, hardware is no longer leading the decision criteria. SDN (Software-Defined Networking) is bringing agility and speed to not only deploy next-generation networks but also to manage them on a daily basis through automation. The impact is transformative, reducing the need for huge IT staffs as well as redirecting those same resources to more value-adding activities within an organization. Testing is another key element to network solution reliability, and white box solutions are inherently not tested as well in order to keep engineering and development costs low. I recently wrote about HPE Aruba’s testing and how it contributes to higher quality and faster time to market. If you’re interested, you can find that article here.
Beyond software and testing, many organizations simply don’t have the core competency and experience to deploy, maintain, and keep networks running. Thus, they depend on the professional services, integration, and scale capabilities of well-established network solution providers for peace of mind. Case in point: Cisco Systems claimed at its most recent Cisco Live! event that it has deployed 50 million networks over the past 20 years. Couple that massive scale with a mature support infrastructure and a white box just can’t stack up on hardware alone—especially for large enterprises. Those companies understand the correlation between network downtime and lost income and profitability. White box solutions might save a few dollars on the front end but could equate to higher operating expenses down the road.
Has open source opened the door?
Open source has been very instrumental in reshaping the landscape of networking and, to a greater extent, the viability of white box networking solutions. Case in point, AT&T announced last year its intent to deploy over 60,000 white box routers within its core wireless network infrastructure. What’s key to making it work is a network operating system based on the ONAP (Open Network Automation Platform), spearheaded by the Linux Foundation.
Open source can also be credited with driving multi-vendor operability, which large enterprises embrace for “best of breed” applications and carriers (such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile/Sprint) leverage for continuity of supply and infrastructure cost containment. The OCP (Open Compute Project Foundation), born out of Facebook’s desire to deploy more cost effective and energy efficient data centers, has also driven the consideration and adoption of white box infrastructure. Within its stated mission, the consortium is facilitating the design and deployment of commodity hardware that is more efficient, flexible, and scalable.
Networking is complex and fraught with numerous challenges, such as security, device management, scalability, and support. One size does not fit all and ultimately both enterprises and operators will select the solution that best meets their needs. I see white box playing a disruptive role as ONAP and OCP continue on their journeys, but I don’t envision a world where it becomes the dominant force. I know the larger network solution providers mentioned in this article are taking note—white boxes could allow them to keep their switches and routers price competitive while allowing software, testing, and support to be key differentiators. I also expect to see more SDN players enter the white box networking space, such as start-up Arrcus (who recently announced its intent to help manage white box routers and switches with a scalable network operating system). It’s too early to tell if white is the new color of networking, but time will tell.