Gray area around white boxes?

Systems vendors across the optical communications spectrum have made significant progress toward transport software-defined networking (SDN).

Systems vendors across the optical communications spectrum have made significant progress toward transport software-defined networking (SDN). Proprietary approaches to transport SDN have already reached the field, while offerings based on collaborative efforts such as OpenDaylight are on their way. Meanwhile, the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) and Open Networking Foundation (ONF) have a transport SDN test and demonstration ongoing as I write this.

The goal of these efforts is similar to that of the data-center environment that spawned SDN - the ability to program network capabilities to create greater flexibility and efficiency. However, there's a data-center SDN corollary effect that I'm sure these vendors don't hope to replicate, which is the creation of a market for "white box" commoditized hardware.

In the data-center world, there's already talk about "white box switches" that perform just the basic switch functions; all the intelligence and provisioning capabilities would reside within the SDN cloud. Similar interest within the carrier environment would seem reasonable. In fact, at an Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) analyst briefing in June, Verizon principal technologist and OIF president Vishnu Shukla presented slides that listed reducing the cost of optical switches by moving control and management planes from embedded processors to off the shelf hardware and virtualized software as a carrier goal for SDN deployments.

I've talked to several analysts and technology developers about the possibility of a market for white box optical systems in an SDN world. Sources at the Open Source Optical Forum, a group devoted to the creation of open source optical technology for SDN applications, indicated that 1-RU optical-switch pizza boxes that can leverage the forum's software are at hand.

However, every other optical communications insider I've quizzed about this topic thinks white box optical transport systems won't see much traction. As one analyst said in the hallways during July's Lightwave Optical Innovation Summit, "Sure, we'll see some. But who would want them?"

The lack of concern among optical transport systems vendors about commodity hardware derives from two sources. First, they believe that optical communications technology has become so complex that a truly generic optical transport system isn't possible in the near future.

Second, even if a viable white box optical transport system could be created, the fact that SDN will be deployed incrementally, without ripping out already fielded optical systems, means there likely would be few places to install white box hardware.

I'm still not entirely convinced that white box optical systems won't find at least some application once SDN takes off. Pure photonic switches might prove most susceptible to such commoditization, albeit more readily for data-center applications. Given how long it will take SDN to fully take hold, I guess I'll have plenty of time to figure this out.

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