As whitebox switching starts coming to the forefront of the next buying cycle for enterprises, decision makers are naturally wondering about the advantages of buying cheaper hardware. Is a whitebox switch going to provide more value for me than buying something from an established vendor? Where are the real savings? Is whitebox really for me? One of the answers to this puzzle comes not from the savings in whitebox purchases, but the capability inherent in rapid deployment.
Ten Thousand Spoons
When users are looking at the acquisition cost advantages of buying whitebox switches, they typically don’t see what they would like to see. Ridiculously cheap hardware isn’t the norm. Instead, you see a switch that can be bought for a decent discount. That does take into account that most vendors will give substantial one-time discounts to customers to entice them into more lucrative options like advanced support or professional services.
The purchasing advantage of whitebox doesn’t just come from reduced costs. It comes from additional unit purchases. Purchasing budgets don’t typically spell out that you are allowed to buy ten switches and three firewalls. They more often state that you are allowed to spend a certain dollar amount on devices of a specific type. Savvy shoppers will find deals or discounts to get more for their dollar. The real world of purchasing budgets means that every dollar will be spent, lest the available dollars get reduced next year.
With whitebox, that purchasing power translates into additional units for the same budget amount. If I could buy three switches from Vendor X or five switches from Whitebox Vendor Y, ceteris paribus I would buy the whitebox switches. If the purpose of the purchase was to connect 144 ports, then that means I have two extra switches lying around. Which does seem a bit wasteful.
However, the option of having spares on the shelf becomes very appealing. Networks are supposed to be built in a way to minimize or eliminate downtime because of failure. The network must continue to run if a switch dies. But what happens to the dead switch? In most current cases, the switch must be sent in for warranty replacement. Services contracts with large networking vendors give you the option for 4-hour, overnight, or next business day replacements. These vendors will even cross-ship you the part. But you are still down the dead switch. If the other part of the redundant pair goes down, you are going to be dead in the water.
With an extra whitebox switch on the shelf you can have a ready replacement. Just slip it into place and let your orchestration and provisioning software do the rest. While the replacement is shipping, you still have redundancy. It also saves you from needing to buy a hugely expensive (and wildly profitable) advanced support contract.
All You Need Is A Knife
Suppose for a moment that we do have these switches sitting around on a shelf doing nothing but waiting for the inevitable failure in the network. From a cost perspective, it’s neutral. I spent the same budget either way, so an unutilized switch is costing me nothing. However, what if I could do something with that switch?
The real advantage of whitebox in this scenario comes from the ability to use non-switching OSes on the hardware. Think for a moment about something like a network packet monitor. In the past, we’ve needed to download specialized software and slip a probing device into the network just for the purposes of packet collection. What if that could be done by a switch? What if the same hardware that is forwarding packets through the network could also be used to monitor them as well?
Imagine creating an operating system that runs on top of something like ONIE for the purpose of being a network tap. Now, instead of specialized hardware for that purpose you only need to go and use one of the switches you have lying around on the shelf and repurpose it into a sensor. And when it’s served that purpose, you put it back on the shelf and wait until there is a failure before going back to push it into production as a replacement. With Chef or Puppet, you could even have the switch boot into a sensor identity for a few days and then provision it back to being a data forwarding switch afterwards. No need for messy complicated software images or clever hacks.
Now, extend those ideas beyond sensors. Think about generic hardware that could be repurposed for any function. A switch could boot up as an inline firewall. That firewall could be repurposed into a load balancer for the end of the quarter. It could then become a passive IDS during an attack. All without moving. The only limitation is the imagination of the people writing code for the device. It may not ever top the performance of a device running purely for the purpose of a given function, but the flexibility of having a device that can serve multiple functions without massive reconfiguration would win out in the long run for many applications. Flexibility is more key than overwhelming performance.
Whitebox is still finding a purpose in the enterprise. It’s been embraced by webscale, but the value to the enterprise is not found in massive capabilities like that. Instead, the additional purchasing power that can be derived from additional unit purchases for the same dollar amount leads to reduced support contract costs and even new functionality increases from existing hardware lying around that can be made to do so many other things. Who could have imagined that a simple switch could be made to do the job of many other purpose-built devices in the data center? Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?