In this article

A fundamental shift in network architecture is well underway, with service providers and other large organizations transitioning from purpose-built hardware appliances to a more software-driven infrastructure in efforts to cut costs, increase agility and better serve customers. 

This shift has led to a dramatic uptick in open networking solutions, commonly known in the industry as white box networking.

What is open networking?

Open networking is a broad term for generic, off-label hardware that presents a cheaper and more agile solution than branded, upmarket alternatives. It is the decoupling of purpose-built networking hardware appliances to software code that runs on generic networking merchant silicon chips.

For decades, companies have relied on branded, proprietary hardware appliances (also known as black box solutions) made by some of the largest and most well-known OEM companies in the world. These machines, built with a specific purpose in mind, come equipped with software functions that allow the appliance to do its job. 

Open networking machines are just the opposite — a blank canvass of sorts. These appliances are built by original design manufacturers (ODMs) and come without any pre-installed operating system or software functions. 

Think of it as the classic Mac vs PC argument. 

When you buy a Mac, you are purchasing Apple software running on Apple hardware. The computer or device is tightly integrated and usually a little more expensive.  That's the "black box" model that traditional network ODMs use. 

When you buy Windows, however, you can run it on just about any x86 hardware. That's what open networking is like — as long as you're running on standard merchant silicon, such as Broadcom, you can pick your own operating system (Cumulus, VyOS, DellOS10, SONiC) or just write your own.

Effectively, open networking solutions leverage the disaggregation of software from hardware. 

What are the benefits and challenges of open networking?

The reasons for pursuing a disaggregated, open network strategy generally fall into two buckets:

  • Price: Open networking hardware can be substantially cheaper than the "name brand" alternative (sometimes upwards of 50 percent).  The network operating systems also tend to come in at a lower price point and are "right-sized" to include only the features you need.
  • Speed: With smaller code size and cheaper, more fungible hardware, open networking makes your environment more nimble and able to respond to new demands in a reduced timeframe.

While price and agility make a solid business case, there are additional considerations on the operational side of the equation. Failure to take these into account will reduce, complicate or outright eliminate the benefits of pursuing an open network strategy. 

The main challenges include:

  • Commitment: Open networking represents a substantial departure from the usual way of doing business. Entrenched ideologies and resistance to change must be overcome at an organizational level.
  • Validation: Open networking solutions must be continuously tested in various areas. Most customer labs are optimized for 12- to 24-month research cycles. Open network solutions require much quicker turnaround (typically on the order of 2-4 weeks) to allow for microcode adjustments, regression analysis, etc.
  • Integration: Disaggregated solutions, by definition, arrive with "some assembly required," and it can be difficult for customers to manage this at scale, on time or on budget.
  • Orchestration: A robust DevOps and MANO infrastructure needs to be in place. Managing thousands of units via telnet and PuTTY is not viable.  A robust DevOps and MANO infrastructure supported by all areas of the organization is required.
  • Operations and support: Not only does the operations team need to be educated on the new platform or platforms, the entire RMA and technical support structure will change. Procedures need to be in place for how to address these prior to deployment.

Why does open networking exist?

Open networking solutions can deliver transformational results, but the economics work best at scale.

Hyperscale companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have for years been utilizing disaggregated, open networking solutions for years to achieve massive scale and incredible service agility. It's a main contributor to these companies' success over the last decade. 

On top of cost savings and speed, another oft-overlooked benefit is innovation. With a proverbial blank canvass, organizations can leverage the power of software and integration to provide custom built, best-of-breed solutions that meet the exact needs of specific business challenges or that are tailored to industry verticals. 

How does it work? 

There are four main components to most open network deployments:

  1. Metal: Open hardware is the bare-metal and off-label platform that everything else sits on.
  2. ONIE:The open network Install Environment (ONIE) is a project of the OCP (Open Compute Project) and seeks to define an open "install environment" for baremetal switches. While technically optional, it greatly facilitates the distribution of OS onto hardware.
  3. NOS: A network operating system to guide and support software installed on top of the metal.
  4. Silicon:Merchant silicon is the application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) at the heart of the device.

When integrated together, these components can provide the same — or similar — degree of functionality as a proprietary solution. When deployed at scale and with proven methods, organizations can realize substantial benefits.

When is the right time for my organization to adopt open networking?

While it's easy to understand the value open networking can provide, implementing this technology remains a challenge for many organizations. That's why it's important for those considering an open networking strategy to be familiar with what they are getting into. 

When we interact with customers interested in open networking, we typically ask them to answer a set of key questions. 

Know Before You Go All In With Open Networking 5 Key Questions

As disaggregated, virtualized solutions become more prevalent throughout the economy, it's important to take a step back and ask yourself: What happens when everything becomes abstracted? 

Developing an open networking solution entails building something new and unknown, which is at the same time exciting and challenging. 

Organizations would benefit greatly from utilizing an experienced systems integrator that can oversee multi-vendor solutions, validate and ensure design requirements are met, rollout the solution quickly at scale, optimize the solution on an ongoing basis and provide technical support between various vendors. 

World Wide Technology over the last 30 years has fostered a rich network of hardware and software partners along with the extensive technical capabilities in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC). We can help eliminate risk and provide multi-vendor flexibility during open networking solution deployment. Once validated, we can build the solution at scale and speed your time-to-market by shipping your open networking solution to your desired location

To truly succeed, open networking solutions must be built on a foundation of strategically designed architecture and implemented with long-term operations and maintenance in mind. Make sure you're partnering with an organization versed in all stages of open networking — from ideation through execution and beyond.