Open Networking: What to Expect in 2021

SONiC is working its way to the top of the Open Network foodchain, and now the big vendors are lining up to support it.

January 28, 2021 5 minute read

Every January (or whenever your fiscal year kicks off), a fair number of enterprises and service providers re-open the Pandora’s box of Open Networking (aka, “white box”). The allure of cost savings and agility makes a compelling argument for shifting hardware and software away from the monolithic Cisco/Juniper/Arista network code and into the disaggregated, modular solutions. 

Before we go further, let’s refresh what those expected benefits are:

  • Reduced CapEx. More or less, Open Network code runs on anything. This flexibility allows for massive reduction in the cost of the actual bare metal it runs on, plus low-cost (or free in the case of open-source) code itself.
  • Reduced OpEx. It’s a common refrain that “I only use 5 percent of the features in any code, and 100 percent of my outages and security alerts come from the other 95 percent.” By limiting the code to the features you need, your exposure to operational challenges is correspondingly reduced.
  • Agility. The smaller the code base and more specific the features, the more quickly you can adapt to new requirements.

So why isn’t everybody doing it?

The most common complaint that torpedoes Open Networking initiatives is the lack of a support model. Historically speaking, loading an opensource operating system on a baremetal box has been the equivalent of cutting the tag off of your mattress or trying to file a replacement claim two days after the warranty has expired. Essentially, you’re on your own. 

The cost models fall apart when you factor in the downtime associated with code that nobody takes ownership of. Similar to how Linux didn’t see much traction until RedHat began providing certified distros, the world has been waiting for someone (anyone!) to step up and say they support it.

By the second half of 2021, that will change.

There was a lot of movement in 2020 in the Open Networking space, with SONiC (Software for Open Networking in the Cloud) becoming an emergent front-runner. Originally developed by Microsoft as a networking element in Azure, it’s now a self-sustaining opensource project that draws major contributions from established networking vendors. More importantly, though (and relevant to this article), those contributors are establishing support models. It’s now an option, depending on your contract, to call Cisco TAC and say, “I have a SONiC problem”… and they’ll help you. 

The flavors range from directly supporting Community SONiC to Containers and Commercial solutions. Digging into these:

  • Community. Consider this to be the pure opensource distribution you can download.  Direct Community support is available from:
    • Cisco supports SONiC running on the SiliconOne chipset.
    • Cumulus Networks (now Nvidia, and a major contributor to FRR, which is the core routing function in SONiC) will directly support certain branches of community SONiC distributions.
    • Arista, as part of their ongoing Open strategy.
  • Container. This approach sets up a CLI-like container (like VTYSH or cRPD) that mirrors with config_db.json. Like a tail wagging on a dog, you configure the router through the container, and the entire stack is supported by the container author.  Options here include (but aren’t limited to):
    • Juniper cRPD and SONiC (essentially running JunOS in a container).
    • Aviz Networks UX for SONiC. Aviz is a software/engineering firm specializing in the development and support of SONiC enhancements and solutions, including Day2/3 support.
  • Commercial. These are proprietary variants of SONiC that have been written/modified to contain some level of additional features not found in the base distros. These features are contributed to the community solution for ratification. Current players include:

*NOTE: Cisco, Nvidia, Arista, Juniper and Dell “strongly prefer” that you run on their brightbox hardware in order to support the SONiC NOS riding on top of it. It's still not an “any on any” situation, but it's getting closer.

How can we help?

  • Sandbox. We are developing a cloud-based/virtual Open Networking sandbox which can deploy, on-demand and at your choosing, a mix of the above SONiC distributions. This sandbox can also be customized/updated to include binaries from most ONIE-compliant solutions. Coming soon!
  • Testing. There are provisos to all of the options we talked about. While SONiC is abstracted from the underlying hardware via SAI, performance and functionality can vary from platform to platform. Additionally, rigorous testing of the solution is a best practice for any new deployment (and regression testing as hardware and software are upgraded). WWT’s Advanced Technology Center was purpose built to help customers make good choices, faster.
  • Customization. WWT Application Services specializes in the agile software development and DevOps disciplines that go hand-in-hand with opensource platforms.
  • Integration. A well-understood challenge of disaggregated Open Network solutions is ensuring that the right software is on the right hardware, and that it all works as expected. RMAs are disruptive, especially when on a schedule. Our Integration Centers ensure that the platforms you want to deploy are in A+ condition before they arrive on site.
  • Deployment. WWT Professional Services, when combined with our world-class logistics practice, can simplify even the most complex rollouts.

Open Networking has always had promise, and — proportionate with that promise — has faced significant headwinds in terms of mainstream adoption. The industry-wide embrace of SONiC, as well as the underlying Linux-based structure of most network operating systems, is changing that.

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