Networking VARs Say Facebook's 'Wedge' Switch Not An Enterprise Play

Solution providers say Facebook's new open source switch is definitely a telltale sign of where the networking industry is headed, but that, for now, it's not an enterprise play.

"The build-it-yourself, Open Compute [Project] stuff just doesn’t seem to be an interest for most corporations, unless they have a massively scaling application that needs to scale without end," said Jeff Drury, director of systems engineering at Mountain States Networking, a Salt Lake City-based Cisco Gold partner.

"For a typical corporation,where they are standing up an email system or an SQL database, they want the proven solutions," Drury continued. "[Open Compute] is just not as much of a play or even an interest from most of the customers we deal with."

[Related: Facebook Takes Aim At Cisco, Juniper With Open Source Top-Of-Rack Switch ]

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Facebook Wednesday sent ripples through the networking world when it unveiled a Linux-based top-of-rack switch -- called "Wedge" -- that it plans to make available as an open source hardware design through its Open Compute Project (OCP).

Facebook's OCP switch design could pose a challenge to traditional network hardware vendors, allowing companies to build their own switches using "generic" or white-box hardware rather than buying proprietary switches from companies like Cisco or Juniper.

The argument for using white-box and open source switches -- something done today by cloud and service provider giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google -- is that they can be less expensive and more flexible than switches from more traditional networking vendors. The adoption of white-box switching also is expected to grow with the rise of software-defined networking.

But, according to network-focused solution providers like Drury, white-box or open source switching has yet to make significant inroads in the enterprise. The reason, he said, is that these switches require a very "do-it-yourself" approach; organizations acquire off-the-shelf hardware and then have to integrate it with a network operating system and, in most cases, also with network virtualization software.

"In our customer base, and we touch customers from SMB to midsize business to large enterprises, Open Compute and disposable hardware -- that makes sense for people deploying racks of servers that have large web applications, like a Facebook or a Google or somebody who can deal with that architecture and the economics of it," Drury said.

John O'Shea, senior vice president of Vology, a Tampa, Fla.-based solution provider and Elite Juniper partner, agreed that open source switches like Facebook Wedge make sense for companies that have the massive IT footprint of a Facebook or Google, but aren't necessarily something an average enterprise customer wants to commit to -- at least not yet.

Part of the reason, he said, is that enterprise customers want to know they have easy access to technical support of a manufacturer or a partner should anything go wrong with their network. In a white-box or open source model, it's not always clear who a customer's support backbone will be.

"When you think about the enterprise, deploying something that doesn’t have the backing of a manufacturer or a partner, it can be scary," O'Shea said. "[Facebook] is doing bleeding-edge stuff because they can."

"We aren't really seeing this in the enterprise space yet," O'Shea continued. "Software and software-defined networking is definitely where [the industry] is going to go, but these guys are on the cutting edge, and they have the resources to be able to go do it."

Simon Leopold, managing director at financial analyst firm Raymond James, agreed that the white-box model, at least for now, seems to be better suited for organizations with abundant IT resources -- like the Facebooks, Amazons and Googles of the world -- rather than the average enterprise shop.

"With great power comes great responsibility," Leopold told CRN in a recent interview on the white-box trend. "The IT organization is responsible for purchasing and integrating and installing that separate piece of software and the SDN controller plane. That's great, if you're a Google."

Cisco, for its part, also said this white-box, open source switching approach seems limited to a "small, highly resourced" group of organizations.

"It is our belief that the open source switch market, sometimes called the 'white box' market, is going to be attractive for only a small, highly resourced subset of the overall IT market. That's because the approach is loaded with hidden, hard and operational costs," wrote a Cisco spokesperson in an email to CRN.

"For example, in a typical network, capital equipment outlays typically account for only 30 percent of the cost of running networks, whereas labor costs constitute 50 percent or more," the spokesperson continued. "In a white box environment, we expect to see labor costs increase substantially as IT departments are required to install, integrate and update separate network operating systems and network virtualization software."

One Cisco solution provider, who asked not to be named, said he "absolutely" sees open source switching as a more near-term threat to Cisco.

"Any of these open source projects can be a threat to the mainstream manufacturers. That said, [those manufacturers] work really hard to stay in front of the competition, but what we're seeing more often than not is that people, especially those that build their own software, choose open source solutions and shun mainstream -- almost on principle," the partner wrote in an email.

Cisco stressed to CRN that it will continue to target large Internet service providers with its own approach to SDN and making networks more programmable: its Application Centric Infrastructure. Cisco said that nine out of the top 10 "largest Internet companies" in the U.S. are currently Cisco customers.

"We intend to ensure they stay our customers," the spokesperson said.