White box switches and their associated operating systems are poised to make an impact on the networking industry during 2014.

White box Ethernet switches offer IT the advantages of flexibility, lower Capex and potentially lower operating costs as compared to traditional “black box” Ethernet switch options. White box switch adoption will be led by large cloud/Web-scale operators with a wealth of IT talent.

Defining white box switches and software

White box Ethernet switches are a subset of SDN in that there is an explicit separation of hardware (bare-metal switches based on Broadcom or other semiconductor supplier silicon) and the network operating system supplied by Pica8, Cumulus or Big Switch. It is expected that there will be others to come. White box switches are like white box servers, offering low cost without the brand name or tight integration of silicon and network software features.

White box switches are not expected to have the same complex features and functions of black box switches, because most will function in an SDN environment in which the SDN controller is making forwarding and control-plane decisions from a centralized point for all switches in the network.

Benefits of white box switches

The proponents of white box switches say that the integrated Ethernet switch model (with its 60%-plus margins) has run its course and will be replaced by commodity, lower-margin switches. White box switches cost significantly less than the equivalent-speed brand-name switches.

However, the real key to white box switches is the potentially low operating costs. White box switches are about automation and making the networking device look like a server. Thus, IT staff without explicit networking expertise can deploy and support the white box Linux operating system. White box switches have support for a wide range of IT development tools, including OpenStack, Puppet and Chef – thus enabling customization of the switch infrastructure to the specific needs of the data center environment.

Challenges of white box switching

White box switches are in very early stages of deployment. Proponents of traditional switching architectures point to the white box switches’ relative lack of specific features (e.g., protocol support) and the dearth of service and support options. For early white box buyers, it is very much a do-it-yourself support model with the need to deal with potential glitches inherent in new networking products.

Data center vs. access networks

White box switches can be deployed either in the data center or in the access network. Hyperscale data centers can deploy white box switches to reduce Capex and leverage open SDN tools to improve time to deployment and automation.

In the access network, white box switches can act like wireless network controllers. Several IT managers have pointed out that access switches can be relatively “dumb” and that they don’t see the need to “pay top dollar” for switches in wiring closet.


Cloud service providers vs. enterprise

The majority of interest and early deployment of white box switches is by very large cloud/Web service providers, such as Facebook, where the huge scale of data center network and broad availability of IT talent make white box implementation practical. Large businesses with high dependency on their network, such as financial services firms, are also key target customers for white box switches. They also have the available engineering staff to take on programmability. However, most financial services firms are in very early stages of white box switch evaluation and are unlikely to deploy until 2015.

White box switch vendors to watch

Vendors to watch include software suppliers Cumulus, Big Switch and Pica8, as well as the associate hardware/chip manufacturers like Accton, Quantum, Intel, Broadcom, Mellanox, Xpliant and Centec. Significant growth of the white box market has the potential to impact the margins and market share of the incumbent Ethernet switch providers, specifically Cisco (and HP, Juniper, IBM, Dell, Brocade, Extreme and Arista).

The bottom line is that white box switches have the potential to disrupt the traditional black box Ethernet switch market. During 2014, the market will see initial adoption in the data center representing a small (low single-digit %) of the overall market. Over time, the white box switch market will need to prove its Capex and Opex benefits as it looks to expand to enterprise buyers and into access networks.