It is well known that bare metal switches and SDN software that powers them have been successfully deployed in hyperscale data centers (e.g. in Google, Amazon) for many years.  These modern network designs – with HW/SW disaggregation and no vendor lock-in – have proven beneficial in terms of unprecedented application agility, massive operational simplification and dramatic cost savings.  More recently however, traditional box-based networking vendors – who have much to lose – have started dismissing these modern designs as “do it yourself” (DIY) solutions not fit for typical enterprise and service provider users.  Interestingly though, these loud dismissals coincide with the trend towards broader adoption of “ready to deploy” hyperscale networking solutions without the need to invest in dedicated infrastructure software teams.

Let’s analyze the key inflection points that are propelling this broader adoption in 2014, including: maturing landscape of bare metal switches & SDN fabric software, community-driven open-source initiatives and the establishment of a robust go-to-market (GTM) ecosystem.

1.   Broader Adoption of Bare Metal Switch Hardware

     A confluence of forces in 2014 is stimulating user demand for bare metal switches:

  • Best-in-class Merchant Silicon: Bare metal switches are being built with the best-in-class Broadcom Trident family of networking ASICs – same ASICs that traditional switch vendors are using in their latest (proprietary) switch products.  Thus, when choosing bare metal switches, users get the same HW feature richness, 10G/40G port density as well as L2-L4 performance as proprietary switches based on merchant silicon.

  • Networking Advances in Open Compute Project (OCP): Multiple networking initiatives in OCP have amplified users’ acceptance of bare metal switches:

    • Open Network Install Environment (ONIE): Enables zero-touch installation of network OS on bare metal switches.

    • Open Network Linux (ONL): Accelerates network OS certification by allowing bare metal switch vendors to port platform-specific software into ONL.

    • Open Networking Switch Design: OCP specified reference architecture for switch hardware, as well as vendor-contributed open-sourced hardware designs (e.g. Accton and Mellanox) are standardizing switch architectures.

    • Facebook Wedge and FBOSS: Facebook’s proposed contribution to OCP include top-of-rack switch design (Project “Wedge”) and portions of its Linux-based network operating system (Project “FBOSS”).

  • Dell’s entry in Open Networking: Dell forged partnership with Big Switch Networks to bring SDN software innovations to its Open Networking switches, and provide one-stop shop for HW, SW (via resell), Services and Support to end users.

 2.   Maturity of SDN Software Solutions

While bare metal switches are a key enabler for modern “fabric architectures”, pragmatic and use case driven SDN software solutions are also maturing in 2014 to deliver on the promise of operational agility and simplicity without compromising scale and resiliency needs of today’s data centers.

  • Hierarchical SDN Control Plane: The modern SDN SW stack consists of network operating system (e.g. Big Switch’s Switch Light OS) running on variety of bare metal switches working in conjunction with an SDN controller.  This allows implementation of a hierarchical control plane where few high-impact control functions are off-loaded to switch software for distributed processing (to achieve scale & resiliency) while rest are implemented on the logically centralized controller for operational simplicity and automated provisioning.

  • Use case driven SDN fabrics: These solutions enable end users to deploy SDN fabrics for specific deployments, e.g. for monitoring or for cloud infrastructures.

    • SDN Monitoring Fabrics provide scalable TAP/SPAN aggregation & filtering solution that interoperates with network packet broker (NPB) service nodes.  As an example, the Big Tap solution, due to its scale-out design, operational simplicity and ultra low cost, is enabling end users to monitor broader and deeper – all the way to top-of-rack switches.

    • SDN Cloud Fabrics enable construction of modern leaf-spine fabrics for deploying pod-based private clouds (incl. OpenStack clouds), VDI and Big Data workloads.  With SDN controller providing single-pane-of-glass management, the entire leaf-spine fabric appear as one big logical switch supporting hundreds of servers, thousands of VMs and tens of thousands of end points.  Provisioning (add/remove/change) of applications, leaf/spine switches, Ethernet links as well as SW installation & upgrades become incredibly simple when compared to traditional box-by-box designs

3.   Business Models to Support Bare Metal SDN

  • Bare Metal Switch GTM Ecosystem: ODMs such as Accton, Quanta, Penguin, Celestica, Delta, Alpha and Interface Masters are establishing distribution channels so end users can easily procure switches through their preferred reseller partners.  Examples of distribution channels include: Edge-Core, Agema, IWNetworks and Synnex.

  • Single-number Support: For technical support, SDN SW vendor (e.g. Big Switch Networks) becomes the “single throat to choke” for the combined bare metal HW + SDN SW solution.  In case of HW issues, SW vendor engages with the bare metal switch vendor and closes the case only when all HW and/or SW issues are resolved.  Outside the US, country-specific resellers (e.g. CTC, NetOne, and Uniadex in Japan) continue to be the single point of contact for customer support.   In case of Dell, the end user would contact Dell directly for global support needs.

  • SDN SW Pricing: simplified per-switch license for the entire SDN software solution speeds up overall purchasing process; it allows licensing of switch OS, SDN controller (with high availability) and fabric application under a single pricing model that is easy to compare against traditional box-by-box solutions.

As a growing set of Global 5000 users is realizing, anyone can experience hyperscale-style networking in their existing data centers today and realize the benefits it provides in terms of:

  • Unprecedented application agility (change velocity)

  • Massive operational simplification (zero-touch fabric, single pane of glass)

  • Dramatic 3-year cost savings (commodity bare metal HW, no additional high-margin support costs)

  • No Vendor Lock-in (choice of HW vendors)

  • No investment in SW resources (ready-to-deploy solutions)

Welcome to the modern world of networking!

 --Prashant Gandhi, Big Switch VP of Product Management & Strategy

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