& cplSiteName &

What Color Is That Optical White Box?

Sterling Perrin

The future of "optical white box" was a topic of discussion, debate and some confusion at Light Reading's recent NFV and Carrier SDN event in Denver. So it makes a lot of sense to give some further thought in this blog to the future of optical white box and what it means -- and doesn't mean -- for optical networking.

Like many others, the "white box" term and concept comes from enterprise IT, where it describes generic, COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware servers and switches that are decoupled from the software operating systems that run on top -- i.e., hardware and software can be, and are, supplied by different vendors yet work seamlessly together. Enterprise white box also assumes x86-based processing.

Porting "white box" terminology into optical networking is where confusion and debate arises. To address the so-called optical white box, let's start with the technology evolution in optics that is characterized by moves from proprietary to merchant technology, and from closed to open.

The first technology enabler is pluggable optics modules. Optical components and silicon are contained in miniaturized and standardized form factors that can be plugged into compatible hardware systems. Pluggable form factors have been common on the client side for years. The application of pluggable modules on the line side for long-reach transmission (most notably CFP variants) is the more recent innovation that has cracked the historical lock in optics hardware.

Coupled with pluggable line-side modules is the rise of merchant DSP silicon for coherent 100G and 100G+ DWDM transmission. There are now several vendors supplying merchant DSPs to the optical industry, but credit here really goes to Acacia for pushing the envelope on innovation and forcing homegrown DSP/hardware vendors to catch up. With several merchant DSP products to choose from -- from the low end to the high end -- optics vendors no longer need in-house ASIC design in order to lead. Ciena's surprise move earlier this year to sell its WaveLogic Ai DSPs on the open market is the strongest indicator of how the coherent DWDM market is swiftly shifting from homegrown to merchant. (See Ciena Sets Its WaveLogic Free.)

The last piece to discuss is the software operating system. Optical networking systems are moving from closed to open with the advancement of open APIs that allow third parties to update and program optical systems in a way that was never before possible. Open APIs originated with Webscale Internet companies, but are now of interest to traditional network operators around the globe. Some open API examples include NETCONF, YANG, OpenFlow, T-API and OpenConfig, among others.

Most industry observers will agree on the optics trends described above. But how do these trends square with the white box concept? An obvious point is that the central role of x86-based processing simply doesn't translate to the world of optics. Optics is adopting merchant silicon and pluggable transponders, but x86 is not part of this picture.

The trickier issue to sort out is decoupling the operating software from the hardware. Such separation is essential to the enterprise white box and is also part of the Telecom Infra Project's Voyager packet optical system. But beyond Voyager (which is not commercially deployed), we have not seen much vendor or telecom network operator interest in this decoupling. Rather, operators want open APIs to gain direct access to vendor hardware to accelerate innovation, better customize products to their own specific requirements, and break from rigid vendor release cycles.

It is not clear that fully decoupling the operating system from optical hardware significantly advances their automation and innovation goals, yet it adds operational complexity. Not surprisingly, vendors are reluctant to push the fully decoupled white box model, but we don't think their telecom customers are strongly pushing for it either.

Optical white box will evolve differently from enterprise white box, and for this reason, the term itself probably does more harm than good. Optics is increasingly moving from closed to open and from proprietary hardware to merchant hardware. Disaggregation has some role to play, but it is not an end by itself. These are the key trends that the industry must be aware of, regardless of what color we label the box.

— Sterling Perrin, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

(3)  | 
Comment  | 
Print  | 
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View        ADD A COMMENT
Sterling Perrin
Sterling Perrin,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/25/2017 | 9:12:06 AM
Re: Agree to Disagree?

I wouldn't want to limit the definition to terminals only, so, yes, the line should be included. Actually, recent HR survey data shows that the line system is of highest interest - among optical systems/segments -- for disaggregation. Interesting comment about the low share of white box in data center switching market. I think, due to greater complexity, optics would track even lower adoption then the data center market. 


User Rank: Light Sabre
10/24/2017 | 6:03:35 PM
Re: Agree to Disagree?
You seem to be implicitly limiting the definition of an optical whitebox to something that includes transponders. The other, arguably more practical, category of optical whitebox is line system components. For example, Lumentum sells a line of what they call "SDN Whitebox" products including ROADMs, muxes, and amps.

Whitebox is not a technology, it's a business model / commercial proposition. Even if the technology trends enable greater degrees of disaggregation that doesn't mean customers will actually choose to buy the technology in the form of a whitebox. After years of whitebox data center switching products being available on the market, they have still captured only low single-digit % market share.
Sterling Perrin
Sterling Perrin,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/24/2017 | 5:00:18 PM
Agree to Disagree?
I am really hoping to get some feedback on the definitions and expectations for optical white box here. There is a lot of confusion. I'm open to all views - including differences of opinion -- as I don't think this concept has been settled yet.

More Blogs from Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Containers seemed poised to take over the Earth, but they've proven slow to implement. Find out how people are implementing containers on real-world service provider networks at the Big Communications Event in Austin next month!
Find out what it takes to transition telecom networks to cloud-native architectures at the Big Communications Event in Austin in May!
At BCE, we'll dive into the topic of Zero-Touch Automation without trying to boil the ocean.
The UK quad-play provider's Colin Whitbread gets closer to the edge, using automation and more.
A major re-architecting of the network will be needed to deliver future services, as we'll discuss during the upcoming BCE 2018.
Featured Video
From The Founder
Light Reading founder Steve Saunders talks with VMware's Shekar Ayyar, who explains why cloud architectures are becoming more distributed, what that means for workloads, and why telcos can still be significant cloud services players.
Flash Poll
Upcoming Live Events
May 14-16, 2018, Austin Convention Center
May 14, 2018, Brazos Hall, Austin, Texas
September 24-26, 2018, Westin Westminster, Denver
October 9, 2018, The Westin Times Square, New York
October 23, 2018, Georgia World Congress Centre, Atlanta, GA
November 7-8, 2018, London, United Kingdom
November 8, 2018, The Montcalm by Marble Arch, London
November 15, 2018, The Westin Times Square, New York
December 4-6, 2018, Lisbon, Portugal
All Upcoming Live Events
Hot Topics
I'm Back for the Future of Communications
Phil Harvey, US News Editor, 4/20/2018
US Investigating Huawei for Sanctions Violations – Report
Phil Harvey, US News Editor, 4/25/2018
AT&T Exec Dishes That He's Not So Hot on Rival-Partner Comcast
Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, 4/19/2018
Live Digital Audio

A CSP's digital transformation involves so much more than technology. Crucial – and often most challenging – is the cultural transformation that goes along with it. As Sigma's Chief Technology Officer, Catherine Michel has extensive experience with technology as she leads the company's entire product portfolio and strategy. But she's also no stranger to merging technology and culture, having taken a company — Tribold — from inception to acquisition (by Sigma in 2013), and she continues to advise service providers on how to drive their own transformations. This impressive female leader and vocal advocate for other women in the industry will join Women in Comms for a live radio show to discuss all things digital transformation, including the cultural transformation that goes along with it.

Like Us on Facebook
Twitter Feed
Partner Perspectives - content from our sponsors
What's in the Box?
By Huawei
Beginning With the End In Mind
By Kevin Taylor, for Huawei
All Partner Perspectives