The LightReading blog, Open Networking Acronym Soup, covers all the interest groups, communities and standards bodies that are driving this idea of Open Networking, which in itself is a grab bag of topics around SDN, NFV and of course white box/bare metal switches. A recent blog post struck a chord with me at first because the author, Marc Cohn, is a good guy and a friend.
But secondly, and more importantly to everyone else, is to point out his astute observation that “we” (people, users and vendors) try to simplify stuff by using acronyms. I agree. In my past job at Infoblox, people always wanted to know what DDI meant, I would reply in my standard excited way “DNS, DHCP and IPAM’’ and most would agree that DDI was easier to say. So let’s take a look at the acronym soup and examine several key factors that you should know about white boxes. And I will lay them out here and try to keep it simple and break the list into two sections, what you should know now, and what you need to keep an eye on…for now.
OCP – Open Compute Project – This is an organization driven by Facebook. The end game is to foster a community that uses all the same tools and tricks to make any switch operating system (OS) operate with any bare metal switch. While certainly a lofty goal, the last OCP event was the best-attended ever with a host of startups and many key players involved, including Dell, HP and Juniper. The objective is to create a plug-and-play ecosystem, where you buy an OCP switch, and load on an OCP operating system—and bam—it just works.
ONIE – Open Network Install Environment – ONIE is an open source “install environment” that acts as an enhanced boot loader utilizing facilities in a Linux/BusyBox environment and was officially adopted by OCP in 2014. This small Linux OS enables end users and channel partners to install the target network OS as part of data center provisioning in the fashion that servers are provisioned. Most, if not all, of the white box makers are adopting ONIE. You should make sure you have ONIE on board the bare metal switch you buy if you want to try more than one OS.
ASIC – Application Specific Integrated Circuit – Sure, I bet you all know this one….This is one of the key components that makes a switch a switch and different from a CPU-driven server. Switches have CPUs as well of course. The ASIC has the hardware features that drive functionality at scale. For example, you don’t just want a line-rate Gigabit Ethernet port, you also need a line-rate port with wire-speed access control lists (ACLs) or quality of service (QoS) marking functionality, and that functionality is baked into the ASIC.
ZTP – Zero Touch Provisioning – ZTP has been particularly useful for data center servers, where scale and configuration similarities across systems make automation a necessity. In the server world, the Linux-based OS has revolutionized on-boarding and provisioning. Rather than using command-line interfaces (CLI) to configure these systems individually, administrators can use automation tools to roll out the OS software, patches and packages on new servers with a single command, or the click of a mouse. Now you have ZTP on many switch platforms.
WB or BMX. Yet more acronyms for white box and bare metal switches.
Developments to Watch over the Next Year
ONL – Open Network Linux – ONL was recently adopted by OCP as a standard Linux distribution for all bare metal switches with apparent support from many white box makers. With the rise of cloud and DevOps methodologies, we’re seeing increased interest in network disaggregation. End users, especially organizations where Linux has been widely adopted, can derive significant operational efficiencies by running Linux on a variety of network hardware. Supporters of ONL ensure that the open networking community can easily leverage bare-metal switches and explore the range of benefits that network disaggregation can offer by standardizing on one Linux distribution. I agree; it keeps it simple. ONL is exactly that idea.
ACPI – Advanced Configuration & Power Interface – Derived from the PC industry, this approach is currently being fostered in the OCP and is widely used in the server/desktop/laptop industry. The idea here is that even if you have the hooks to the CPU and the ASIC, you still need to make sure the fans, sensors and lights on the box are functioning as expected after you port a new OS to your device. So there is considerable action behind the scenes to port to a new “box,” even if the OS works on another box with the same exact ASIC and CPU. Advocates maintain that eventually hardware compatibility lists will go away, and when you put an OCP OS on an OCP bare metal switch it consistently works without much fanfare.
SAI – Switch Abstraction Interface – This is a recently initiated OCP project to drive a consistent API framework across different ASICs. Today each ASIC manufacturer has its own API set, which makes it difficult for end users to adopt them in a meaningful way. Of course you don’t want to be an ASIC engineer or have to build your own entire switch, but you may want enough functionality to adjust aspects, such as counters or the packet processing pipeline for unique traffic patterns that are indicative of your environment.
Ok that is a decent list of key acronyms. Share some in the office with your team mates, or impress your friends at your next cocktail hour! In the meantime, stand by for more blogs to come on white boxes.