White box networking in remote and branch offices

Nov. 21, 2017
Deploying white box networking saves network administrators capex. Its automated management capabilities eliminate the need for on-site IT personnel.
Not just the domain of hyperscale data centers, white box networking can be deployed efficiently in the enterprise.

By Dan Tuchler, Pica8

With hundreds or thousands of locations to be connected, managing network services in remote or branch offices can be a significant challenge. Network services support everything from internal and guest WiFi to internet access, internal data networking, Voice over IP phones and video. All of these services have to be delivered and managed in a cost-effective way, but many solutions require rolling an IT truck to each location (which is prohibitively expensive) or adopting expensive proprietary hardware along with onerous support contracts.

There is a different solution—white box switches and networking software that support all the features a branch office needs with remote management, but without the high cost and without vendor lock-in.

Remote and branch office networking challenges

Branch office networks have several common elements. Branches are hundreds or thousands of miles away from the corporate headquarters, and there are typically no trained IT people on site in each branch. Rather, these networks are centrally controlled and administered from the corporate data center.

Recognizing the need for trouble-free, centrally managed networking infrastructure many years ago, branch office equipment vendors built proprietary, fully integrated systems to handle networking chores. The problem with this approach is that entrenched vendors with proprietary hardware/software architectures demand high costs as they extend their contracts with locked-in enterprise customers. In addition, full-service 24x7 solution support (hardware, software, interoperation and applications) adds to the cost, exacting the steepest possible pricing from enterprise customers.

White box networking: A new approach to branch office networking

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the IT industry underwent a transformation. Rather than buying proprietary servers with proprietary operating systems, enterprise IT departments began buying “white box” servers from suppliers like Quanta and Dell, and running standard operating systems like Linux on them. Today, it’s far less common to see customers buying servers with proprietary operating systems pre-installed on them.

A few years ago, mega-scale data centers like Google, Facebook and Amazon wanted to replicate the white box server paradigm with network switches, so they defined standard Ethernet switch architectures that allowed them to buy switch hardware from the best source and put their own switch software on it. Because these companies made very large investments in switching software development teams, they could make this work.

Today enterprises of all sizes are buying white box servers and running Linux or other operating systems, and this trend has now migrated down to networking switches. A number of open networking software companies like Pica8 have emerged, offering enterprises a standards-based, full-featured network operating system (NOS) for use with white box switches.

By using white box switches, enterprises can separate hardware-purchase decisions from software decisions, just as is done with application software and servers. This freedom of choice drives costs down.

The first place these economies were realized was the data center, where the savings are multiplied by the large quantity of top-of-rack switches. Enterprises are recognizing that the same savings are possible anywhere there are numerous, similar switches. Remote and branch offices are a perfect fit—with many identical locations, no on-site IT support, and the need for a flexible approach to fit emerging business requirements while conserving precious budgets.

Open switching software brings a broad range of networking capabilities to white box switches.

Open switching software in the remote of branch office achieves advantages including company-traffic QoS higher than WiFi guests; remote, centralized provisioning and management; no revenue lost to IT-preventable outages; and economic efficiencies.

Open switching software in the remote and branch office

Besides the cost savings, there are several things needed to satisfy networking in the remote office/branch office environment. Branch offices, particularly today’s retail stores, must support a dynamically changing set of demands, including the following.

  • Data—Transactional support for the business, must always be the highest priority

  • Voice—IP phones require Power over Ethernet (PoE), plus enough protected bandwidth to ensure call quality

  • Video—Surveillance cameras, plus advertising and promotional video have specific bandwidth requirements

  • WiFi—Not only supporting retail employees, but also allowing store customers to browse, check product details, and interact with new retail applications

  • Emerging new immersive technologies—New ways of selling are evolving quickly

  • Emerging WAN strategies, including SD-WAN—Replacing traditional dedicated links while offering much higher speeds

  • Whatever’s next—For example, virtual or augmented reality, will continue to advance demands on branch offices

Open switching software includes many features that have been developed to support this challenging environment, including the following.

  • Advanced, granular quality of service (QoS)—Giving network architects the tools they need to prioritize and protect classes of traffic

  • Device detection and PoE management—The software can recognize approved device types and provide power to them, both simplifying the installation process and preventing unauthorized devices from getting powered on

  • Unapproved devices can be blocked from the network

  • A rich set of switching protocols and management interfaces are supported

Hardware-independent switching software in the remote and branch office enables secure network services as well as repeatable, template-based, automated, centrally delivered network element management. Thus, network management efficiency is extended from the data center to branch and remote office networks. This allows enterprises to minimize branch and remote office capex and opex while significantly enhancing application availability and performance.

Open switching software benefits

By using open switching software on white box switches, enterprises can unwind the vendor bundle, thereby introducing significant value via the introduction of hardware price competition, use of the best-designed platform, a full suite of hardware features, and elimination of first-line support costs for tech-savvy enterprises.

With open switching software sources, this strategy is available to anyone. The industry has seen adoption across data centers, telcos, and enterprises. Today network management and switch software give network managers visibility into and dynamic automated control over network bandwidth, route congestion, outages and bandwidth allocation to ensure maximum uptime.

The economics of white box networks

Due to the virtualization of network, compute and storage, enterprises now reap the economics of scale available from centralizing the data center with large complexes containing multiple processors in thousands of servers, just as the mega-scale data center operators like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook do.

Where there are large numbers of similar branch office installations, the economics of platform-independent switching software executed on white box hardware are compelling, and companies have begun to achieve savings and operational advantages by deploying this approach. Total-cost-of-ownership comparisons of remote office architecture based on Cisco equipment versus the same architecture deployed with a white box switch and open switching software show capital expenditure savings exceeding 50 percent.

Automated provisioning

Remote and branch office switch software delivers key benefits that provide IT operational productivity, accelerate deployment activation, improve network security and raise uptime reliability. Zero-touch provisioning allows employees to just plug in the switch and it configures itself, with no need for on-site IT personnel. Remote administration of all policies, including OpenFlow-powered ACLs and QoS is another benefit. Additionally, enterprise security, including access control is enhanced. Industry-standard access control protocols admit only authorized users to the network, per a centrally administered access policy. Automation is another benefit. As needs change, the enterprise can update and add features to its branch office solution from a centralized location. Open switching software should include tools that allow changes to be easily rolled out across branches.

Supporting white box switches in the enterprise branch office

White box switches include models made by ALPHA, Delta, EdgecorE, Quanta Cloud Technology, and others. These companies also make switching hardware for most major OEM switch vendors. In addition, brite-box (branded white box) switches are available from HPE and Dell. These white box and brite box switches give customers a broad range of choices, are mature and have very low failure rates.

Some enterprises may still be reluctant to deploy generic original design manufacturer (ODM) hardware without a major network equipment vendor’s brand name. However, open switching software vendors offer high-quality software and hardware support to customers in order to alleviate these fears. The open switching software should generate diagnostic messages, allowing remote diagnosis of hardware failures and software issues. In addition, white box switch vendors typically offer full hardware and software support services, including immediate hardware replacement and repair, so that enterprises never have to worry about hardware failures or vendor finger-pointing.

For customers who choose to buy direct from a partner ODM, the first line software and hardware support is delivered by the switching software vendor via phone and/or email. If needed, tech support uses remote access to the switch to quickly isolate hardware failure and software issues. Then, the normal return merchandise authorization (RMA) process is used for returning the equipment to the hardware vendor.

For customers who buy these solutions from an installation and maintenance vendor, the vendor should collaborate with the switching software vendor and their enterprise customer’s IT group to show them the value when they’re in the pre-sales stage. Then, during deployment, the open switch software vendor helps the installation and maintenance vendor set up its customer’s standard switch configuration parameters (network settings) for the devices the IT group wants connected to the switch. The installation and maintenance companies then activate the switch by downloading the software image, then load the enterprise’s standard configuration.

Networking to the enterprise remote or branch office is complex and expensive, and enterprises want alternatives to proprietary hardware/software platforms. White box switching software addresses the expense by running on multiple white box switching platforms from several manufacturers.

White box networking solves the expense of automation and maintenance as well; by automating branch office networking and providing centralized policy control, white box solutions enable fast, comprehensive, and cost-effective networking, eliminating the use of on-site personnel for the bulk of IT management and raising IT staff productivity with built-in automation and remote management.

Dan Tuchler is vice president of product management for Pica8 (www.pica8.com). He has held product management and executive positions at startups including Alteon Websystems, Blade Network Technologies, Force10 Networks, and Mellanox Technologies.

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