Web-scale companies such as Facebook and Google have helped to stoke interest in white box compute and network solutions. Google has long been a user of white box hardware in its data centers. The ability to customize the network to the application's exact needs has enabled synergies that make sense for web-scale applications such as search and social media. The outstanding question is: Are there similar advantages for traditional enterprises that have more a diverse application environment?
Software-defined data centers
One issue that complicates the conversation is the desire to implement software-defined data centers (SDDCs). The SDDC provides an organization with the tools to deploy agile IT operations that enable businesses to reduce the time needed to implement new ideas. Facebook and Google operations are great examples of the SDDC. It can be difficult to separate the physical infrastructure and the concept of SDDC.
White box hardware isn't a requirement for the SDDC. The software-defined capability comes from the integration capability of your data center management software and the hardware and services provisioned within the data center. Solutions commonly associated with software-defined design principles include converged and hyper-converged infrastructures. There are very few if any converged or hyper-converged infrastructures designed around white box hardware.
The white box appeal
The initial appeal for white box servers and networks is understandable. With architectures such as Open Compute, organizations can tailor hardware to their exact needs. In some situations, the hardware can cost less than similar hardware from server and network OEMs — this argument is strongest amongst the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) crowd. Cisco's competitors market against the high-profit margins of Cisco's hardware.
Software is another appeal. White box switching hardware allows customers to run open source switch software such as Open vSwitch and freely explore software-defined network (SDN) strategies that don't have the friction of some vendor-specific solutions. Dell has marketed its Open Network products as a solution for organizations wanting to leverage bare metal in their SDN deployments.
It's all about support
There are major questions around the ability of organizations to fill the gap between the capability of open source designs and the promise of Facebook like orchestration and automation. Besides the technical challenges, there's a practical support challenge introduced with white box hardware.
Web-scale companies build redundancy in the application that reduces the reliance on hardware reliability. In addition to these application-specific benefits, web-scale companies have operation teams and monitoring tools designed around supporting white box infrastructures.
Most enterprise data center operations leverage premium-level support from the hardware vendor. If a port on a switch goes bad, the customer is accustomed to some type of support agreement that would easily replace the hardware. In a white box design, a more aggressive replacement depot would need to be in place to mitigate hardware failures. Depending on the specifics of the business and data center design, this burden may erase any financial savings from a white box design.
The openness of Google and Facebook around its data center designs and contributions to Open Compute have benefited the industry. Facebook's sharing of its data center network fabric design has also proved beneficial. However, there are many challenges in adopting a white box strategy in the application environment typical within most organizations.
Has your organization taken a serious look at white box networking or compute? If so, let us know what you think.
Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 15 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. His areas of expertise include virtualization, networking, and storage solutions for Fortune 500 organizations. He holds a BA in computing and a MS in information technology from DePaul University.