What is a White Box Switch?
A white-box switch is a network switch built with off-the-shelf silicon components and offered with open specifications, enabling customization and programming. White box switches provide significant cost savings and flexibility compared to traditional switches, making them an attractive option for many businesses. These switches are typically built by ODM vendors and sold under various brand names, including Edge-Core, UfiSpace, Dell, and others. White box switches are often referred to as “open networking” switches because they are not locked into a specific vendor’s operating system or management software.
White box switches have gained popularity in recent years due to supply chain issues caused by COVID, leading companies to seek alternatives with better product availability and reduced costs. Most white box switches are in stock, and those not in stock have a significantly shorter lead time compared to the 1-year lead times from traditional vendors. This provides an appealing alternative for companies looking to avoid lengthy delays. Additionally, white box switches offer more control and flexibility, including the ability to choose any hardware vendor, reducing the risk of being tied to a single vendor.
White Box Switch vs. Bare Metal Switch vs. Bright Box Switch
A white box switch is a hardware device assembled from standardized parts and supports multiple network operating systems (NOSes). In contrast, a bare metal switch refers to a network switch with no preinstalled operating system, allowing the user to install their preferred NOS. Bright box switches are a hybrid of traditional switches and white box switches, offering some level of customization while retaining some proprietary features.
White box switches are based on open standards, enabling seamless integration with various networking equipment. This makes them an ideal choice for organizations seeking a modern, heterogeneous network instead of an outdated monolithic approach.
ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits) are specialized chips used in white box switches. Popular ASIC vendors include Broadcom, Marvell, and Spectrum. These companies provide high-performance, power-efficient, and reliable chips for white box switches.
Disaggregated networking is a concept where network hardware and software are separated, allowing for greater flexibility and customization. White box switches exemplify this approach, as they support different NOSes and management software while utilizing various ASICs.
Network Operating Systems (NOSes)
White box switches offer flexibility by supporting a range of network operating systems (NOSes). SONiC is the primary open-source choice, while commercial alternatives include Arista EOS, NVIDIA Cumulus, IP Infusion, and Pica8. An organization’s decision to adopt a particular NOS hinges on its willingness to commit time and resources to implementation. To help overcome challenges associated with open-source solutions like SONiC, there are now companies that provide orchestration services. Ultimately, organizations can choose the NOS that best aligns with their available resources and strategic goals.
Managing White Box Switches
Companies like Aviz Networks, BeyondEdge, and Dorado Software provide management, orchestration, and support for white box switches, regardless of the switch, NOS, or ASIC vendor. This flexibility allows businesses to mix and match different switch, NOS, and ASIC vendors within the same network. The single-pane-of-glass approach streamlines the management and support of white box switches, providing full visibility into the entire network stack. Centralized support simplifies troubleshooting by eliminating the need to determine whether an issue is hardware or software related, removing the necessity to contact multiple vendors for switches or Network Operating Systems (NOSes) to resolve problems. This provides a unified customer experience comparable to traditional vendors, enhancing accountability and support.
Proof of Concept (POC) and Deployment
Many customers begin with a proof of concept (POC) to ensure the white box model works for them. Once customers realize the cost savings and functionality offered by white box switches, they often expand their white box footprint and feel more confident running them in mission-critical settings. We have overseen numerous successful proof-of-concept (POC) deployments, where customers have gained confidence in running white box switches in mission-critical settings after testing them in a limited production environment.
One common concern with white box switches is support. However, this concern has been alleviated as white box switches are now commonly sold as bundles, which include a preinstalled, field-tested hardened NOS from vendors like IP Infusion, along with added management and support tools from companies such as Aviz Networks. These comprehensive packages ensure a reliable and well-supported solution for businesses, and the switches are ready to be installed and work right out of the box, making deployment easier and more efficient. Additionally, most vendors offer assistance with migration and address any interoperability challenges, drawing on years of experience implementing solutions for hyperscalers to ensure a smooth transition and seamless integration.
The Future of White Box Switches
The industry has reached a critical point where there is not only a growing interest in white box switches but also an increasing comfort level with adopting this model. This shift is due in part to the success of recent deployments and the maturation of the industry as a whole. Vendor fragmentation deterred many IT leaders from adopting white box switches, but the industry has recognized and addressed this issue.
From recent deployments and feedback from our customers, the top benefits of white box switches, ranked by importance, are as follows:
Better Lead Times And Product Availability
White box switches had proven to be a lifesaver for many organizations due to their shorter lead times and better availability, with many of them being in stock, compared to traditional switches, especially during periods when supply chains were disrupted.
In some cases, white box switches can offer cost savings of up to 90% compared to traditional switches without sacrificing functionality. This is because customers have the freedom to purchase only the components they need and can choose from various vendors. This fosters competition and reduces costs, ensuring a more competitive and tailored solution to suit their specific requirements.
Increased Control And Flexibility
Organizations have more control and flexibility in choosing hardware vendors for their network stack. This allows them to mix and match switches from different vendors and build a network tailored to their specific needs.
White box switches are easily scalable, making them suitable for businesses of all sizes, from small startups to large enterprises. When building a network with white box switches, especially within a modern leaf-spine network topology, there is less of a need for expensive traditional chassis, resulting in cost-effectiveness and adaptability across the network.
World-Class 24/7/365 Support Options
Companies like IP Infusion and Aviz Networks provide comprehensive support for white box switches, addressing both hardware and software issues from a single source.
In summary, white box switches are an increasingly popular alternative to traditional networking solutions. They offer lower costs, greater flexibility, and the ability to work with open standards, making them an attractive choice for organizations looking to build a heterogeneous network. With the industry maturing and increasing numbers of successful deployments, we can expect to see the adoption of white box switches continue to rise in the coming years. By understanding more about white box switches as well as the ecosystem of NOSes, management tools, and support vendors, organizations can make informed decisions on the best available networking solutions for their needs.