Open Switching Has Won The Data Center. Next Up: Campus Access Networks.

By Jeff Paine, vice president of marketing, Pica8.

Jeff Paine

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:

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:

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.

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