The telecom industry's move to SDN and white box deployments is driving significant changes in the switch market. These changes will likely lead to lower capex and opex costs for network operators in the market.

Simon Stanley

April 21, 2015

4 Min Read
White Box Switching Enabled by Latest Silicon & Software

The latest switch silicon and software is enabling white box switches that, together with standard servers systems, are replacing dedicated network systems. These switch systems provide multi-terabit switching on a platform that can be customized by the network or data center operator with SDN, OS and other software downloaded to the box.

The white box switches are supplied by contract manufacturers, server vendors or established networking and telecom manufacturers and network integrators.

This development is the latest phase in the shift from vertically integrated telecom systems and equipment manufacturers to a horizontal and virtualized market where service providers deploy cost-effective, high-performance hardware and provision virtual functions and services using SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV).

Switching systems are built with either merchant silicon or custom switch ASICs developed by the leading telecom equipment manufacturers. The percentage of switch systems using merchant silicon has steadily grown as new generations have delivered significant performance and feature enhancements and the cost of developing ASICs has dramatically increased. Most switch manufacturers have added value to their switching systems with embedded OS and network management software. The importance of this embedded software has grown dramatically with the development of SDN and NFV, and switch manufacturers now view this software as more valuable than the basic switch hardware. This is shown by the recent decision by Arista Networks Inc. to charge separately for software licenses and hardware sales. (See Arista Offers Software à la Carte.)

At this critical time, the latest edition of Heavy Reading Components Insider, "Switch Technology & Components for SDN & the White Box Era," analyzes the latest merchant switch devices and SDN-ready switch solutions.

The report covers the leading switch devices, reviewing product features, performance and flexibility. The report profiles the six leading switch chipset vendors, examining their strategies and product portfolios, as well as seven companies delivering SDN-ready switch solutions, including OS and networking stacks with support for OpenFlow on bare metal and virtual switches, and complete systems developed to support virtualized networks.

The recent growth in data center bandwidth is driving a shift from Gigabit Ethernet to 10GE and 25GE connections between servers and top-of-rack switches, and a shift from 40GE to 100GE connections elsewhere in the data center. The latest 100GE switch devices supporting up to 3.2 Tbit/s available from Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM) have full features to support SDN and NFV. The Cavium devices are based on the solutions developed by Xpliant before the acquisition by Cavium in July 2014. These devices can be configured with up to 32 100GE ports, 128 25GE ports or a combination of 10, 25, 40, 50 and 100GE ports. Both companies also have more cost-effective versions, with some or all of the 25Gbit/s serial interfaces replaced by 10Gbit/s interfaces. Broadcom has also introduced a new generation of scalable switch chipsets for more demanding applications.

Broadcom, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) and Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX) have older switch devices with support for 10GE and 40GE ports. The largest of these devices support 32 or 36 40GE ports. Many of these devices have significant support for SDN and NFV. China-based Centec Networks (Su Zhou) Co. Ltd. is now joining these more established players with new switch devices designed for data center, enterprise and metro applications. The Centec Networks devices are expected to be significantly lower cost than equivalent devices from the market leaders, but support the full functionality. Packet Architects provides an alternative solution with switch IP for FPGA and ASIC switch development.

The shift to SDN is making third-party switch software solutions more important. OS and networking stacks with support for OpenFlow on bare metal and virtual switches are available from several companies, including 6WIND , Big Switch Networks , IP Infusion Inc. and Pica8 Inc. Arista and Compass Networks have switch systems with innovative OS and other software to support SDN and NFV.

Broadcom, Intel and Marvell have dominated the market for merchant switch chipsets. The investments made by these vendors and competitor Mellanox in 40GE switch devices with support for SDN has changed the market with many switch manufacturers now using merchant switch devices instead of in-house designs. The latest switch introductions from Broadcom, Cavium and Centec promise new levels of performance and price that in-house developments are unlikely to challenge. These new devices, together with third-party software and support for open standards, are forming a new ecosystem that enables this new market for white box switches.

The winners will no longer be those solutions selected by the leading equipment manufacturers but those selected by the leading data center operators and other end users.

— Simon Stanley, Analyst, Heavy Reading Components Insider

This report, "Switch Technology & Components for SDN & the White Box Era," is available for $900. For more information, please visit:

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About the Author(s)

Simon Stanley

Simon Stanley is Founder and Principal Consultant at Earlswood Marketing Ltd., an independent market analyst and consulting company based in the U.K. His work has included investment due diligence, market analysis for investors, and business/product strategy for semiconductor companies. Simon has written extensively for Heavy Reading and Light Reading. His reports and Webinars cover a variety of communications-related subjects, including LTE, Policy Management, SDN/NFV, IMS, ATCA, 100/400G optical components, multicore processors, switch chipsets, network processors, and optical transport. He has also run several Light Reading events covering Next Generation network components and ATCA.

Prior to founding Earlswood Marketing, Simon spent more than 15 years in product marketing and business management. He has held senior positions with Fujitsu, National Semiconductor, and U.K. startup ClearSpeed, covering networking, personal systems, and graphics in Europe, North America, and Japan. Simon has spent over 30 years in the electronics industry, including several years designing CPU-based systems, before moving into semiconductor marketing. In 1983, Stanley earned a Bachelor's in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from Brunel University, London.

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