I can't remember the last time a chip in a box grabbed as much attention as it did at this week's White Box Strategies for CSPs event in Santa Clara, Calif. Why you might ask? Well, it's because white box networking is all about giving service providers the opportunity to customize and differentiate not only on software but also on the silicon level, too.
In building out white box networks, communications service providers (CSPs) have the ability to select high-quality components in order to provide functionality and performance and longevity, according to Chloe Ma, senior director of Cloud Market Development at Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX), who spoke on the Winning White Box Switch Strategies panel at the event. "If you look at Google and Facebook, they work with all the OEMs and build their own switches and servers because they not only want to differentiate at the software level but also on the hardware level."
Service provider speakers at the White Box event made it clear that white boxes aren't just about being lower-cost generic technology, Ma said. "The main motivation stated by Christos [Kolias, Orange Silicon Valley] and Ken [Duell, AT&T] is really flexibility and customization and choices," she commented. "It gives service providers the opportunity to customize their infrastructure based on their own specs. Software gives you faster innovation but hardware and the switch silicon actually can give you the performance and power savings that you also need."
White box networks may be "a train that has left the station," but it's not without challenges for the traditional telecom industry that in order to shift to a white box model must face cultural, skillset, operational and governance changes on top of the technical, noted Steve Garrison, vice president marketing, Pica8 Inc. , on the same panel.
"To someone that has been used to just picking up the telephone to Cisco and Juniper and saying, 'Just give me that core router,' now you have to have a conversation not only about what technology you want but what your team can handle, what use case makes sense to break the old way and try the new way," said Garrison. "It's not one-size-fits-all anymore or an easy answer."
James Sun, president, CEO and co-founder of Centec Networks (Su Zhou) Co. Ltd. , pointed out that one misconception of white boxes is that low functionality means lower value. In the white box world, "It means optimized, simplified and customized for a specific application."
Dis-aggregation is another key aspect of white box switches, said Michael Bushong, vice president of datacenter routing and switching at Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) "White box disaggregation forces a focus on good architecture," he said. "The vendors themselves can do a better job of building products and coming to market faster."
However, for the dis-aggregation to really take off, it needs to go down to the silicon level, he added. "There is a great meme that says, 'Why does my white box have a black box inside it?' which references the boot silicon," Bushong commented. "I think if you look at the boot silicon, in general, for the dis-aggregation to go down, there's a focus on the silicon vendors."
So while there is a dominant vendor today -- Bushong called out Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) -- there are clear signs that other companies could reach the same status, including Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Mellanox and Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), among others.
Ready for a Close-Up
When was the last time you saw a chip in a box being filmed like it was a movie star on the red carpet?
— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, Editor, The New IP