OFC 2014 Cheap no-brand networking gear rolling off Asian assembly lines has its uses, but they are fairly small, a trio of industry insiders have said.
In a panel discussion at the Optical Fibre Conference 2014 in San Francisco on Tuesday, execs at two service providers and one supplier gave their thoughts on the wave of enthusiasm for low-cost commodity hardware and software-defined networks sweeping through the industry.
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"For a single application, single tenant data center, if you own your whole application and are doing your own software you have the ability to do a [network] white box," explained Ihab Tarazi, chief technology officer at services provider Equinix. "It has advantages and disadvantages, but you have accountability and full control over the components of that application."
He was referring to large vertically integrated companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which have all sought to reduce their dependency on companies like Cisco and Juniper, by using generic hardware built from royalty-free publicly available blueprints. Facebook claims its commitment to this so-called "open" hardware for servers, storage, and more recently networking, has saved it more a billion dollars in three years.
Tarazi expressed some skepticism at the usefulness of the cheapo tech.
"In our case, we have a multi-tenant data center where the challenge is to add some of the network functions to the software layer, and develop a skillset and support model," he said before arguing that "jumping to a white box to solve that all at once" is a leap too far.
There may be "a happy medium between some components that we have today plus some kind of abstractions or services," he explained, but it is likely that Equinix and other providers will always use highly specialized hardware somewhere within their networks.
"There's always going to be specialized hardware. There isn't a single vendor that can cover it all," said Randy Nicklas, chief technology officer at communications provider Windstream.
"At some point in the network with enough aggregation you're not going to have the packet forwarding performance required. That's been looked at over the years many, many times. You cannot build large-scale routers out of commodity parts."
The general view was that the networking industry may go through a period of consolidation as hardware makers retreat to specialisms, preventing commodity boxes from ruling all data centers.
"What we see emerging is a number of players across the ecosystem that have to play nicely to deliver what the customer wants," said Gary Smith, chief executive of telecoms kit supplier Ciena. "You're seeing already a narrowing of focus. You cannot be competent to the point of world-beating in three or four areas, and I think that applies to really big companies."
All told, the panel splashed a little cold water on the utopian visions being spun by Facebook and other consumer web giants.
There are even places where commodity hardware is likely to be useful – "is there an increasing role for things like session border controls or shared tenant security devices? Sure," Nicklas said. But that hugely expensive Juniper or Cisco box is likely to stay in a service provider's machine hall for a long time yet, the panel said. ®