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White Boxes Don't Scale

Mitch Wagner

SAN FRANCISCO -- OFC 2014 -- Name two things that aren't dead. If you said character actor Abe Vigoda and high-performance proprietary switches, you'd be right!

White-box switches, built using commodity components and running OpenFlow software, don't scale and won't replace proprietary switches from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), and so on, according to Randy Nicklas, executive vice president for engineering and chief technology officer for Windstream Communications Inc. (NYSE: WIN). Nicklas spoke at a panel discussion on "The 'IT-ization' of Telecom and Its Implications" here.

This is either a proprietary
switch or Abe Vigoda.
Either way, not dead.

White boxes don't provide needed packet forwarding, Nicklas said.

White-box switches can work for small service providers. But multifunction, multitenant services need specialized hardware, said Ihab Tarazi, chief technology officer for Equinix Inc. (Nasdaq: EQIX), also on the panel.

White boxes can provide some network functions, such as security, Nicklas said.

"But if you're in the path of high volumes of data -- 100 to 500 ports -- you need high performance," Nicklas told us after the discussion. A typical Internet provider has a point-of-presence in a city and requires high-performance hardware in that PoP. "You won't have enough slots to put 10G cards in a white box."

That said, software is becoming increasingly important to network operations and requires new relationships with vendors and skills from network managers, Tarazi said. Vendors need to become partners, willing to commit to long-term relationships, with robust software for operations and management. For most service providers, the days of just buying cheap, powerful switches are over.

Network managers need to have both networking and software skills, Tarazi said: "You need a new skillset. We call them 'white unicorns.' You can't find them."

Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) has a headstart there, president and CEO Gary Smith said, noting that over 70 percent of its engineers are software engineers.

Service providers' changing needs change the vendor relationship, Smith said. "Historically, Ciena has been buried deep in the network, and occasionally we stuck our head up and said, 'What's going on?' " But now Ciena needs to be more aware of service providers' business needs. Ciena spends as much time with customer marketing departments as it does with engineers, as well as spending a lot of time with CIOs. (See Ciena CEO: I'm So Excited!)

Replacing proprietary switches with white boxes running open-source is a central tenet of SDN. (See Defining SDN & NFV.) But that's the purist vision. As with open-source movements in IT, purists want to cleanse the city by driving out proprietary infidels (so to speak). Pragmatists look to leverage the advantages of open-source and commodity hardware while continuing to use proprietary technology where it makes sense. (See 6 Degrees of Separation: SPs Define 'Open'.)

— 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 mwagner@lightreading.com.

Want to learn more about SDN and the transport network? Check out the agenda for Light Reading's Big Telecom Event (BTE), which will take place on June 17 and 18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. The event combines the educational power of interactive conference sessions devised and hosted by Heavy Reading's experienced industry analysts with multi-vendor interoperability and proof-of-concept networking and application showcases. For more on the event, the topics, and the stellar service provider speaker lineup, see Telecommunication Luminaries to Discuss the Hottest Industry Trends at Light Reading's Big Telecom Event in June.

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User Rank: Light Sabre
6/25/2014 | 3:54:26 PM
Re: 70 percent -- big deal
Cisco's claim is that 85 percent of its engineers are now in the software realm.
User Rank: Light Beer
6/25/2014 | 3:38:48 PM
Re: 70 percent -- big deal
I believe Cisco has claimed to have 25000 software development engineers. I think they have 70000 employees
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/14/2014 | 2:12:41 PM
Re: The jury is still out on white boxes in telco dc
>> White boxes can provide needed packet forwarding at PoPs. Indeed they might be the only way to cost-effectively deliver east/west services. Apparently they are not for Windstream, but other carriers are actively investigating them, right now. Ref. http://www.sdncentral.com/education/intelligent-aggregation-increasing-control-isp-edge/2014/03/ 
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/13/2014 | 6:21:52 PM
Re: The jury is still out on white boxes in telco dc
I'm surprised Chairman Ray didn't make reading his Bridging the Chasm (between network and IT) manifesto a job requirement.
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/13/2014 | 6:19:21 PM
Re: The jury is still out on white boxes in telco dc
I think the common thoughts are you can scale out instead of scaling up, and the software will manage the scale portion of it.   That's what has happened in lots of other arenas.  One issue I've seen recently is around things like symmetric flows through a piece of equipment doing some kind of traffic management.  The white box scale out approach requires ECMP and we are starting to see symmetric hashing be commonplace but not in all areas.  

The other place there are issues is at the very top of the network when the traffic isn't necessarily east/west.  Today people want to use 100G and white boxes are sitting at 40G.  Scaling out at some of those points in the network where things aren't really distributed is kind of difficult and chances are you aren't saving much in space/power by using 4 white boxes rather than 1 larger chassis.    
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/13/2014 | 6:11:13 PM
Re: The jury is still out on white boxes in telco dc
I'm still not entirely clear on what the "IT-ization" of service providers means, even after sitting through a panel on the subject. It seems to invovle telecoms becoming more agile. 
User Rank: Lightning
3/13/2014 | 4:45:36 PM
pandora box
be carefull what you ask for. it might ruin the industry while nobody is benefited.
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/13/2014 | 1:23:37 PM
Re: 70 percent -- big deal
As neither company is a nonprofit, we can assume they are working on initiatives that benefit their employers.
User Rank: Blogger
3/13/2014 | 1:22:15 PM
Re: 70 percent -- big deal
Interesting percentages, but in the age of open networking it begs another question--what percentage their time is being spent on open source software work?
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/13/2014 | 11:03:20 AM
70 percent -- big deal
Ciena's boast that 70 percent of its engineers are software engineers sounds impressive, but Cisco is claiming an 85 percent figure for its software engineers. Who will be the first to hit the magic 110 percent mark?
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