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White Box Networking: It's Not About Cost

Mitch Wagner
11/18/2015
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- White Box Strategies for CSPs -- While reducing capex and opex grabs headlines, that's not the main reason for the transition to white box networking.

Differentiation, rather than reduced cost, is the prime motivation for communications service providers to transition from proprietary networking gear to white boxes, said James Sun, president, CEO and co-founder of Centec Networks (Su Zhou) Co. Ltd. , speaking on a panel here Tuesday.

Chloe Jian Ma, senior director, cloud market development, Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX), agreed. The main motivation for moving to white box networking is to provide flexibility, customization and choice.

White box networking comes from recreational roots; gaming enthusiasts pioneered white box development for PCs, Ma said. Gamers wanted to get the highest quality components rather than the cheapest components. Now, we're seeing a similar trend for white box switches, driven by more serious, business goals, as service providers look to build a custom infrastructure based on their own specs to run optimally for their own applications and meet the demands of the New IP.

Flexibility & Differentiation
AT&T's Ken Duell, Mellanox's Chloe Jian Ma, Pica8's Steve Garrison, Centec's James Sun, and Brocade's Michael Bushong (l-r)
AT&T's Ken Duell, Mellanox's Chloe Jian Ma, Pica8's Steve Garrison, Centec's James Sun, and Brocade's Michael Bushong (l-r)

Over time, white box servers will help drive CSPs to become "platform service providers" rather than simply providing communications, Ashish Singh, SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) GM/VP products, said. Comms will open their network and resources and build their own services on the platform, while also letting partners build services as well.

Ken Duell, AVP of New Technology Product Development & Engineering, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), speaking on a panel on white box switches later in the morning, agreed. "When we open up our network, customers come up with things we never even thought of," he said.

While SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) is looking to white box servers to manage capex, it also wants to provide specialized capabilities through white box, said Ashish Singh, SK Telecom's GM/VP of products. The carrier is looking to white box servers as part of a strategy to build "mini-modular data centers" for services at the edge to serve mobile computing needs, rather than sending data to a centralized data center.

The goal is to move intelligence closer to the edge of the network, to enable improved reliability, data protection and end-to-end encryption, Singh said.

Close to the Edge
SK Telecom's Ashish Singh and Intel's Bob Ghaffari (l-r)
SK Telecom's Ashish Singh and Intel's Bob Ghaffari (l-r)

The technology to deliver white box servers to service providers is here today, but the transition is slow. Operators are deploying white box servers where there is "low hanging fruit" of services that provide value to customers, such as SD-WAN, or offering 30- and 60-day trials to customers of new services, said Bob Ghaffari, director, enterprise and appliances, data center/network platforms group, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)

In many cases, telcos will need to develop their own specifications for white box servers, differentiated from enterprise specs, and also differentiated from the Open Compute Project led by Facebook . But rather than launching another standards body, carriers can use what's applicable from OCP and fork a new branch if necessary. "My personal preference will be to take that kind of direction rather than spinning out a new industry body," Singh said.


Want to know more about white boxes? Visit Light Reading's white box content channel.


One member of the audience said during Q&A that the top three communications service providers in a few years will be Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Hyperscale will drive the industry in the future, the audience member said.

Light Reading Editor-at-Large Carol Wilson, moderating the panel, directed the response to Duell. "I assume AT&T isn't going to quietly go away," she said.

Duell agreed. "You can bet your cup of coffee -- we're going to compete. I bet we're going to succeed as well," he said.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to wagner@lightreading.com.

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ajwdct
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ajwdct,
User Rank: Light Beer
11/23/2015 | 9:19:17 PM
Re: OPEX Savings or Problems? + Conference Summary
Thanks Mitch, but I maintain OPEX will be a critical issue for deploying white boxes in a production/live network.  They won't be as reliable as typical carrier class network equipment and the hardware/software are from different vendors leading to a systems integration/fault isolation/finger pointing problem which will increase OPEX.

Another issue raised by an IEEE member who commented on the community.comsoc.org website article I posted was "interoperability standards."  I replied that issue was being solved by open source consortiums, rather than ITU-T or other recognized standards body.

 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
11/23/2015 | 10:21:11 AM
Re: OPEX Savings or Problems? + Conference Summary
Hi, ajwdct - It's an issue, but it's not the reason to make the change. I've seen estimates that network operators who change to virtualization won't see savings in the first year or two, because the change itself incurs costs. 
ajwdct
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ajwdct,
User Rank: Light Beer
11/22/2015 | 8:24:47 PM
OPEX Savings or Problems? + Conference Summary
I continue to believe that OPEX will be a key issue for white box networking.  Issues include: hardware/software integration, fault isolation and repair (fail-over and problem resolution), restoration/re-routing around failures or congested network nodes, integration with OSS/BSS, upgrades/updates to software which cause problems with other functions, etc.

Here's my conference summary: 

http://community.comsoc.org/blogs/alanweissberger/highlights-light-readings-white-box-strategies-communications-service-provider

 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
11/19/2015 | 5:18:09 PM
Re: Open is about speed
It's more apparent in the cable space: Companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime are obviously in the video business. 

Cable providers have an advantage there, though -- cord-cutting consumers need to buy their bandwidth from somewhere, and it's likely to be the same companies from whom they're no longer buying video content. 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
11/19/2015 | 5:15:25 PM
Re: Bet a cup of coffee? This is serious...
I agree that AT&T is likely to be a surviror. Which Tier 1 providers are likely to go down? Which smaller providers are likely to move to the head of the pack? I wonder.
Ray@LR
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Ray@LR,
User Rank: Blogger
11/18/2015 | 10:58:23 AM
Bet a cup of coffee? This is serious...
If AT&T's Duell is prepared to bet his cup of coffee that the telco will still be a top tier comms services player in the future, then that's real committment... but AT&T (and others) will need to move even more quickly if he's not to relinquish his daily espresso quota to the Web-scalers...  
msilbey
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msilbey,
User Rank: Blogger
11/18/2015 | 8:28:41 AM
Open is about speed
It's the same thing we're hearing in the cable space. Opening the technology up is about increasing the speed of innovation. Iterate constantly to continue adding value.
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