White boxes are often considered the generic version of hardware, and, as with most generics, they are expected to be cheaper than the more specialized, purpose-built hardware to which telecom is accustomed. But as a trio of experts agreed a week ago at Light Reading's White Box Strategies event in Santa Clara, Calif., both the benefits and the complications of deploying white boxes in telecom networks go way beyond simplistic cost savings.
To be sure, there will be some of that, noted Michael Bushong, VP of Data Center Routing and Switching for Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD). He greatly enjoyed tweaking fellow panelist Sanjeev Mervana, senior director of service provider business and technology architecture for Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), by reminding folks that service providers are looking forward to paying less for white box gear than they currently fork over to Cisco and others for fully featured equipment.
The problem for many service providers is that they don't use most of the features for which they are forced to pay, and new features and updates take too long, Bushong said. "There is a drive to reduce capex," he commented. But in fairness, he added, separating hardware and software makes the former less expensive, to be sure, but will lead to more expensive software costs that today are bundled into the hardware purchase.
"In most companies, 90% of the R&D goes to software, but most monetization is with the hardware," he said. Once the two are separate, that would change. So either network operators start spending more on software or hire more people to "roll your own."
There will also be integration costs and lifecycle management that now must be done different, Bushong noted.
For web-scale providers, the focus is on using white boxes to create the layer of the network at which there isn't much change -- other than scaling up -- and where there is less innovation, in the white boxes themselves and in how they are networked, according to Saikrishna Kotha, global infrastructure architect at
Show Me the Money
From left, panelists Bushong, Kotha and Mervana debate the capex and opex benefits of white box networks at Light Reading's White Box Strategies for CSPs event in Santa Clara.
Instead of building up a service portfolio on a product-by-product basis, it's more important to consider what he called "form factors" and which are required. Then specific software can be used to spin up features or applications as needed, using just what resources are needed for that specific application. At LinkedIn, for example, its 400 million users may only see their individual profile, but that is powered by more than 800 underlying services, Kotha said.
So specific reductions in opex and capex become less relevant than the ability to reliably upgrade features rapidly, only touching and changing what needs to be changed.
That web-scale approach is something telecom operators are attempting to adopt, which is why they have become more focused on managing their applications programming interfaces (APIs) and trying to abstract complexity from the underlying hardware, according to Cisco's Mervana. But in the process of doing that, they are also facing new challenges around how they acquire technology and the need for new processes and massive staff retraining.
He referred to what he called "ruthless automation" as a necessary step in the process -- it was one of the things on which the Cisco and Brocade panelists agreed -- if telecom operators are going to reap financial rewards from moving to white boxes as part of the shift to virtualization.
"If you are trying to move into a winning position by cutting costs, that's a risky strategy," Bushong said. In the short term, both enterprises and network operators will be supporting dual infrastructures, as they transition to a more virtualized approach. "It will take time to retool people and processes."
Noting that opex cuts usually mean layoffs, Bushong pointed to the massive retraining effort underway at AT&T as a sign of what lies ahead for most operators. (See It's a White Box World.)
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading