By Jeff Paine, vice president of marketing, Pica8.
There’s a revolution sweeping the world’s biggest data centers: open switching. Look inside the top seven web-scale companies, and you won’t find the big networking incumbents. Instead, you’ll see “white-box” switches (or, in many cases, open “brite-box” switches produced by vendors like Dell EMC) that can run open, Linux-based network operating systems from multiple vendors.
What do these companies know that the rest of the industry doesn’t? That there’s no law dictating you have to use proprietary network devices and management software. And that, by leaving the proprietary world behind, you can simplify your network and radically reduce your costs.
This secret is now spreading to organizations in every industry, including education. Colleges and universities have experimented with open switching in research labs for years, but until recently, it just wasn’t feasible for the larger campus network. Now, the last barriers to open access networks have disappeared. University IT departments are starting to realize that the status quo for campus networks is a choice, not an imperative, and there are compelling alternatives to consider.
Seeding the Open Network Revolution
Most colleges and universities use the same aging, proprietary campus network infrastructure they’ve had in place for years. After all, when these networks were built, the big names in networking (Cisco, Juniper, Extreme) were the only options. Despite massive shifts in the devices and applications that have come to rely on access networks in the intervening years, surprisingly little has changed. To the point that most university IT departments just accept these networks’ inherent disadvantages as the price of doing business. Disadvantages like:
- High costs, especially for proprietary network management software and automation frameworks, which can run to more than half a million dollars annually
- Antiquated three-tier architectures that can’t keep pace with demand for more capacity at the edge and create a sprawling network that’s a nightmare to deploy and manage
- Inefficient high-availability mechanisms like Spanning Tree, which strand half the available switch ports and bandwidth in the network
For several years now, the hyper-scale web companies have used open networks to address all these issues. White-box/brite-box solutions can do the same things as brand-name devices (and use the same underlying hardware) with far more architectural flexibility, at a fraction of the price. Until recently though, there were gaps in these solutions that kept open switching relegated to data center networks (or, on college campuses, to the lab).
There was no straightforward mechanism for port aggregation, for example, so no open alternative to stacked switches in campus wiring closets or high-end chassis switches. More significantly, there was no viable management and automation framework that would allow university IT departments, which typically run very lean, to easily deploy open infrastructure. How do you install open switches in hundreds of campus buildings when each one requires a skilled network engineer to turn up and configure it?
Opening Up Campus Networks
Today, those gaps have disappeared. There are now viable open network mechanisms for port aggregation, without requiring switch stacks or chassis. And, for the first time, university IT departments can use full-featured automation frameworks to easily deploy and manage hundreds of remote open switches from a central location—for a fraction of the cost of proprietary software.
It’s now possible to move the entire campus production network to open white-box/brite-box infrastructure. By doing so, colleges and universities can:
- Substantially reduce costs: White-box/brite-box switches can be purchased for about half the cost of big-name network devices. But the ongoing software savings are even bigger, with open switching vendors offering full-featured automation and management for literally a few dollars per switch per year. Compared with conventional automation frameworks, colleges can run open networks for literally less than the cost of the sales tax on proprietary software. The licenses also tend to be more flexible, with no limitations on the number of devices or users.
- Simplify deployment and operations: Conventional access networks require skilled network engineers to provision and configure new devices each time a switch is deployed—high-level IT personnel that most universities don’t have to spare. With modern open networking frameworks, deployment is fully automated. Anyone capable of plugging in power and Ethernet cables can install a new device. As soon as it comes online, the switch connects to a central IT server, pulls down the right configuration, and installs itself—zero manual provisioning required.
- Collapse sprawling campus architectures: The three-tier architecture model has been around so long, many IT departments don’t even register the extra costs and effort it adds to network maintenance. Today, open networks can use approaches like multi-chassis link aggregation (MLAG), and in many cases collapse access and distribution layers (which previously required hundreds or thousands of devices to be managed individually) into a single IP address.
- Improve resiliency: Current availability mechanisms for campus networks are far from ideal. Use a protocol like Spanning Tree, and you can never touch half the ports and capacity you’re paying for. In many cases, even with resiliency in place, when one stacked switch in a wiring closet fails, the entire stack goes down. Open networks can use more resilient active-active failover mechanisms that just aren’t feasible under the economics of conventional devices. You can often deploy two open hardware devices (and add an extra “9” of reliability) for less than the cost of a single proprietary switch.
- Streamline support: If you use brite-box switches (that is, open hardware provided and supported by a vendor like Dell EMC), there’s a good chance the university already has a support contract in place with that vendor. Now, you can support almost your entire IT environment (servers, PCs, infrastructure devices, open switches used in labs) under one contract, with one vendor to deal with if something goes wrong.
Building a Better Campus Access Network
Many colleges and universities are now in the midst of large-scale campus network refreshes, seeking to meet new edge demands (multi-gigabit Wi-Fi, exploding use of video, Internet of Things applications, and more) that their legacy networks just can’t accommodate. But unlike in the past, university IT departments are no longer limited to the same legacy vendors and expensive proprietary frameworks.
As IT departments survey the options, the question, “Why go open?” is answering itself. If anything, it’s getting harder to justify continuing to lock yourself into yesterday’s access solutions.