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White Box FAQs

What is a White Box switch?

White box switch is a term used to describe the commoditization of IT devices by assembling off-the-shelf components. When used in the context of switching, open switching hardware platforms are created using off the shelf processor, memory and switching chipsets which are compatible with various manufacturer’s software operating systems. The concept of white box has been championed by end-users who demand value without sacrificing performance and in the compute and storage worlds, has proven to be quite successful. It is the networking industry that is now travelling this same commoditization path and already delivering leadership products. It is important to remember that commodity hardware requires an operating system that takes advantage of the hardware’s capabilities and which ultimately delivers specific functions. In the server world, Linux and Windows tend to be the two most popular choices, and it is the software operating system that actually determined the values realized by the end user. In the switching market, it is the white box operating system again that determines the capabilities that the end user acquires. Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux is an advanced white box operating system which delivers fabric networking with built-in analytics capabilities.

What is the difference between a white box and a bright box?

When a white box is private labelled by a tier-1 vendor, it is many times referred to as a “Branded White Box” or shortened to “Bright Box”. Hence, white boxes and bright boxes can be identical from a manufacturing stand-point, with the exception of the Logo/nameplate that is adhered to the surface. But the hardware itself is not really the issue.

As it turns out the business aspects of white box versus bright box may be very different. Price, warranty, support, etc. are all factors that vary greatly from vendor to vendor. When selecting a white box or bright box solution, it is important to consider all aspects of the various offerings, NOT simply the technical or switching specifications. A vendor’s reputation, support processes, and track-record should play heavily in the selection process.

What do the terms “OCP” and “ONIE” mean?

In 2011, facebook engineers proposed an open standard for data center devices which would drive cost down in web-scale properties. Open Compute Project (OCP) was formed as a non-profit to foster this idea and solicit and mediate designs for open consumption. Over the next 5 years, companies including Apple, Google and Facebook had joined the project. Computing, Storage and Networking along with power and racking have all become part of the OCP efforts and there are reference designs available for each of these components. To date, Facebook and a handful of other Fortune 500 companies have deployed into products OCP certified devices. Switches based upon this specific are available from companies like Edgecore/Accton and when powered by Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux, provide industry leading performance and forward-looking fabric and analytics capabilities.

The term “ONIE” is sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably with OCP, but actually refers to a technology called “Open Network Install Environment” which serves as a specification of how any operating system must be packaged to allow it to boot upon OCP specified devices. Operating systems such as Open Netvisor Linux (ONVL) from Pluribus are ONIE-compatible which enables them to boot on OCP-specified devices.

Do all white boxes conform to the Open Compute Project specification?

No. OCP specifications have evolved over time and continue to evolve. Value centric manufacturers have introduced commodity-based designs prior to OCP official specifications to offer end-users the economics and value of open computing. There is virtually no difference in these devices. Computing, storage or switching appliances that include x86 processors, memory and I/O subsystems are not always officially OCP-compliant, but perform virtually identical to their OCP-specified counterparts. Most white boxes today also include the OCP-specified “ONIE” boot requirements whether they are OCP certified or not, so while they functional flawlessly, the actual mechanical design of those earlier boxes do not conform strictly to any new OCP hardware specification.

Don’t all white box switches comes with a built-in Operating System?

No, not typically. Just like any x86 server regardless of manufacturer must be purchased and configured with Linux or Windows, white box switches must be too. White box switch vendors typically build relationships with the white box operating system vendors like Pluribus, to offer those as a factory-installed option as an ordering/delivery convenience. End users may choose to source their hardware and software operating systems separately or work through the manufacturer or systems integrator to combine the two before taking delivery.

How can a commodity white box switch equal the performance of a mature vendor's ASIC based switch?

Traditional networking switch designs required complex, time-consuming and costly investments in proprietary chip designs. Each switch family typically is created with a custom ASIC for that switch. Every switch family needed a new ASIC. As the numbers of products from that manufacturer increased, so did the number of custom chipsets that were required to offer new features and functions. Some of the industry’s largest networking switch providers have literally thousands of custom ASIC chipsets to support all of their thousands of products. The effect of having lots of overlapping chipset developments running in parallel is a dilution of resources for each individual project, not to mention a staggering cost to fund all of the parallel efforts. Industry pioneers like Broadcom realized that the use of many teams, each chartered to deliver overlapping chipsets was inefficient and expensive and resulted in mediocre results. Instead, they focused on specifying broader sets of capabilities that could be implemented in far fewer numbers of chipsets by the industry’s most talented chip designers. By reducing the number of chipsets, more resources could be applied to each, which resulted in chipsets that were fundamentally more capable than their proprietary counterparts. Better performance, more features, lower power, lower cost, etc. Pluribus recognized this market shift and founded itself on leveraging these high-performance commodity chipsets.

What kinds of features can I expect to see in a white box switch?

There are really two parts of this answer. The first part if what capabilities the hardware itself brings to the table. This will include the number and types of ports, the amount of memory, and the performance of the processor. It will have an energy footprint, and a number of mechanical characteristics such as orientation and cooling provisions. The number and types of ports is what most people look at first, and will typically include some number of 1GbE, 10GbE, 25GbE, 40GbE and 100GbE ports. The ports many be fixed form-factor, or interchangeable media types. A 1U switch will typically have 40-48 ports or one type of the other, but some switches have more, some less, some modular, etc.

The second part of the answer deals with the features provided by the software operating system, and can vary greatly from OS to OS. Whereas some switch operating system vendor offer an OS that simply powers these white boxes, transforming them into inexpensive layer-2/3 traditional switches, other OS vendors use entirely new protocols to deliver the switching function as an island with a centralized controller, omitting compatibility with existing network infrastructures. Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux avoided these mistakes and delivers the best of both worlds, by offering a true fabric which spans any number of physical switches, a single management domain for all devices, compatibility with the industry’s most popular orchestration layers like Puppet and Ansible, and even includes the industry’s only embedded analytics, all through the use of existing protocols which assures complete compatibility with existing Layer-2/3 infrastructures.

How do white box switches compare in price to traditional switches?

They are less, much less. No matter how you slice the equation, deploying any white box or brite box (branded white box) switch with an associated switch operating system will cost far less than buying a traditional switch. In fact an white box switch with an advanced OS like ONVL from Pluribus will cost ABOUT HALF of what you would expect to pay when buying a comparable proprietary switch from an incumbent vendor. The economics are staggering, but should not completely overshadow the advanced capabilities that you’ll realize at this lower cost. Capabilities like simplified fabric management, complete programmability, and embedded analytics are high value capabilities included in the Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux OS for white boxes.

Who supports a white box switch, the hardware or OS vendor?

Excellent question and one that should not be treated lightly. Through the process of disaggregation, two completely different vendors are involved in providing a functional white box switch. The hardware manufacturer supplies the bare metal switch, and the operating system vendor provides the operating intelligence. The key point to consider is who supports such a combination of technologies, and it is for this very reason that Pluribus introduced its “Pluribus-Certified” partner program which assures that the combination of hardware and software is supported by Pluribus itself. No need for finger-pointing or other cumbersome business inhibitors. As the SDN marketplace transitions from experimentation to production usage, this issue become a key metric of success. 

Can I really change the operating system on a white box switch if I choose to?

Absolutely! Any white box or brite box switch that supports the OCP-specified “Open Network Installation Environment” (ONIE) can boot any ONIE-compatible operating system. Much like the interchangeability of Windows and Linux on a traditional server, white box switch hardware can be re-purposed at will for future projects simply by installing a new operating system. The advanced features of new network operating systems like ONVL from Pluribus can easily be installed on a ONIE-compliant switch that may have previously be running a different OS, thus preserving the entire hardware investment in those switches.

Can white box switches provide me embedded telemetry for analytics purposes?

White boxes are based upon commodity chipsets which can expose the TCAM switching data. It is this data that can be utilized for analytics. But the white box hardware is not the key to the analytics story. It is the OS that must provide network analytics. It is the operating system that must utilize this data to provide analytics. Today, Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux is the only switch operating system that can leverage this TCAM data at the same time that the switch is providing its primary switching function. Other white box OS solutions either transform the hardware into a switch or into a packet broker for analytics, but not both. Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux is the only OS that can do both at the same time. Read more about white box technology

Where can I get white box switches?

Major manufacturers such as Dell offer white box switches which have been branded and come with their own support and warranties. Keep in mind that when a vendor like Dell offers a white box, it can be referred to as a brite box by industry pundits. Additionally there are a number of other suppliers of white box switches which can be sourced directly with or without an operating system. EPS Global is an example of a system integrator that can supply the very popular Edgecore/Accton white box switches with Pluribus Open Netvisor Linux.

 

Dell Technologies

Edgecore Networks

Celestica

Pluribus Freedom 9532L-C Switch