White Box Networking: It's Not About Cost

White box networking helps service providers achieve flexibility and differentiation.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

November 18, 2015

4 Min Read
White Box Networking: It's Not About Cost

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.

Figure 1: 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.

Figure 2: 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 [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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