Pica8 CEO: Cisco's 'Primitive' ACI Poses Greater Security Risk Than Open Linux-Based White-Box Switches

Cisco Systems' Application Centric Infrastructure software-defined networking technology and its proprietary network switches pose a greater security risk than the open-source, white-box, bare-metal switches now storming the market, said Pica8 co-founder and CEO James Liao.

"If you compare [Cisco's] primitive embedded system to Linux, for security or stability, I can safely say that it's much better and much safer to use a Linux system compared to the embedded system," said Liao in an interview with CRN. "Open source is much more transparent, and as a result your security and your stability is much higher compared to those closed-source embedded systems. That's just the nature of things."

Cisco's closed-source network switches even have some customers concerned about a potential "back door" that can be exploited, said Liao. "A lot of people complain that Cisco boxes have a back door and Cisco never talks about that," he said. "Why do people suspect those boxes might have a back door and might have something that vendors put in so that they can sneak in some of the traffic? Because it's closed-source. You cannot see the source code."

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Cisco, San Jose, Calif., declined to comment.

Liao's hard-hitting comments come as Pica8 Monday unveiled its Edge-Core Networks Power over Ethernet white-box switches. The new products are aimed at providing dramatic savings and increased security for ISPs, telcos and cloud providers, according to Liao.

By leveraging white-box networking and switches that support PoE, service providers can sell new high-revenue-generating applications to customers, he said.

"What we're seeing is this new type of SDN over white-box switching will enable a lot of new services and enable a lot of vendors to provide these services to end customers," said Liao. "In the past, there were only very limited services that service providers [could] deliver through the networking platform because those were closed platforms and [had] very limited features. Now with SDN on white-box, service providers can provide new services on top of these PoE boxes."

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Pica8's open solutions are winning customers at a breakneck pace compared with rivals Cisco and Juniper Networks, said Liao.

Bare-metal switch sales grew 11 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period one year ago, according to Infonetics Research. That amounts to 12 percent of all data center Ethernet ports shipped worldwide for the first quarter of 2015, according to the research firm.

"The major difference on the white-box side is that now the customers have choices toward some niche applications or niche platforms; they can choose the same high-performance platform from any white-box vendors," said Liao.

Pica8 is not alone. Dell is expanding its open networking portfolio with three new branded metal switches, while Hewlett-Packard unveiled a new line of HP-branded open-source, white-box network switches earlier this year.

Bryan Shook, account manager for System Solutions, an Ontario, Canada-based Pica8 partner, said he's seeing more interest from customers in Pica8's offerings.

"It's a more affordable product to leverage, but it's also more of a sense of freedom," said Shook. "It's an open product. The OpenFlow option is becoming very attractive for people. … White-box switching also attracts more of a 'do-it-yourself'-type of customer so they can have their own input into it and be able to customize their own processes."

Pica8 is trying to change how the industry views networking by enabling the migration from proprietary, closed environments to a more open ecosystem where more vendors provide different and new services to end customers, said Liao.

"Within two or three years, we're hoping this industry will continue to come together and create a very strong ecosystem and then eventually replace the vertical players," said Liao. "We're an enabler to make the change, but at the end of the day we have to work together as an ecosystem and completely change the way people think about the networking industry."