infoTECH Feature

November 12, 2019

The Time Is Now for Open Access Networks

By Special Guest
Jeff Paine, SVP Marketing, Pica8

Hear that rustling in the background? That’s the sound of the big-name network vendors furiously reshuffling their enterprise marketing strategies. Because open networks and white-box switching have become commercially viable alternatives and are turning their world upside down.

Open networking has already grabbed a very large piece of the market in the data center. Now, it’s moving onto the next frontier: distributed enterprise campus and access networks. Today, leading enterprises are starting to deploy open networking at scale in their distributed networks, not just their data centers. And they’re seeing impressive results.

 What’s Wrong with Current Campus/Access Networks?

Peer inside most enterprise switch closets, and you’d think you’ve opened a portal back to the early 2000s. Because, while practically every other area of tech has been transformed over the past two decades, the basic architecture of campus/access networks has remained largely unchanged. You’ll see the same switch stacks and chassis, the same brand names, even the same protocols. Take Spanning Tree Protocol, which most enterprises still use to protect resiliency—despite the fact it sucks up half the ports (and half the available bandwidth) of every switch in their network.

While campus networks themselves seem stuck in the past, however, the world around them continues hurtling towards the future. Millions of new mobile endpoints. Billions of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and connected devices. Multi-cloud services. Nonstop wireless upgrades and the looming emergence of 5G. Individually, each of these innovations represents a drastic ramp-up the operational complexity, security demands, and bandwidth requirements for campus/access networks. Collectively, they are forcing a sea-change in the networking industry. Faced with these mounting pressures, it’s no wonder 20-year-old networking concepts are struggling to keep up.

The one bit of good news: at least the hardware is starting to die off. Aging switch stacks and campus chassis models of yesteryear are finally reaching end-of-life. Which means for the first time in years, enterprises have a viable opportunity to do things differently. This infrastructure is fully amortized. It’s time to move on, and the most competitive enterprises are already doing just that. Only this time, they don’t need to take the same old switching models with them.

A New Approach

Enterprises looking to overhaul their campus/access networks are, of course, free to invest in the same kinds of networking solutions they’ve always used. Inevitably, though, that means taking on the same set of problems that comes with them—like getting locked into one vendor’s pricing and ecosystem to start. Take the case of one leading vendor’s next-gen access networking software “solution.” To implement features like detailed analytics, automation, security, micro-segmentation, and so on, customers have to:

  1. Purchase a dedicated new appliance – $100K (minimum) starting price – just to run the software
  2. Purchase minimum 3-year licenses per switch to talk to this appliance
  3. Spend thousands to tens-of-thousands of dollars per switch for these licenses
  4. Spend even more per switch to work with third-party solutions 

As if sticker shock and lock-in aren’t bad enough, opting for a refresh using “new” legacy solutions also means sticking to that vendor’s timeline for software and feature updates—regardless of what end users or customers actually need. It also leaves enterprises with no way to differentiate the network experience from in-market-vertical competitors, since they’re using the exact same solutions, from the same vendors.

Fortunately, there’s another option: open networking. By moving away from legacy campus/access approaches and embracing open network hardware and software, enterprises can:

  • Slash costs: Enterprises can purchase and operate open networking solutions for a fraction of the cost of conventional brand-name switches. It’s common, for example, for a large campus chassis switch to take up 14 rack units (RUs) and cost several hundred thousand dollars. Today, you can connect the same campus with 9 RUs of open switches that deliver 150% more capacity—at about one tenth the price.
  • Simplify network architectures and operations: Open networking paradigms and operating systems make it easier to move away from antiquated protection schemes like Spanning Tree. Using modern approaches like multi-chassis link aggregation (MLAG), they can eliminate the need for the conventional three-tier architectural model, in some cases collapsing access and distribution layers (previously representing dozens/hundreds of networking devices) into a single IP address. The resulting networks become much easier to configure, operate, and maintain—essential in a market where skilled network engineers are at a premium.
  • Start using their networks as a business differentiator: In the current campus/access market, the introduction of a new ASIC comes with much fanfare—followed by lots of waiting around for switch vendors to write custom code to take advantage of it. In many cases, by the time you have a box that can actually deliver those specs, the market has already moved on to another ASIC generation. You’re also, by default, locked into your vendor’s software release schedule for any new features (right alongside your competitors using the same switches). With open networking, you gain the flexibility to do whatever you want with your hardware, on your own timeline, based on your unique business priorities.
  • Increase network flexible (AKA future-proofing) vs built-in obsolescence: In the legacy switching world, once you pick a model for your campus/access network it quietly ships with a built-in hardware expiration date – a timeframe that, at times, can actually be shorter than the tightly coupled software licenses that ship with it. This vendor-defined, artificial lifecycle is particularly galling for very large enterprises with long, multi-year internal testing/approval cycles. It is not uncommon for these enterprises to receive vendor EOL or EOS notices for the hardware they are still evaluating. This is in stark contrast to an open networking architecture with its perpetual software licenses and disaggregated hardware and software architecture. Here enterprises can, if they wish, continue to test software features and functionality while upgrading underlying hardware to adapt to the ever-changing business and technical demands of the access edge.
  • Improve network reliability: Most open networking solutions support approaches like MLAG to deliver the same reliability and availability, without the huge sacrifices that come with conventional protection protocols. But open networking can also increase reliability just as a function of its superior economics. With the cost of hardware so low, in many access networks you can typically deploy two switches—and add an extra “9” of reliability—for less than the cost of a single legacy switch.

Overcoming Access Challenges

It’s no accident that, until recently, open networking was rarely considered for the distributed campus. Compared to tightly controlled data centers, campus/access networks are basically like snowflakes – no two are alike. By contrast, data centers tend to be stable, homogenous environments, typically employing just one or two switch models. They also tend to have switches running right where the company’s most skilled, top-tier network engineers are conveniently available to install, configure, and maintain them. Campus/access networks are an entirely different animal.

In the campus/access world, you have to be able to deploy hardware across hundreds – sometimes thousands – of distributed sites, most of which don’t have high-level networking staff (if they have any onsite networking personnel at all). Additionally, where data centers have robust, out-of-band management networks to run things like zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) and the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), everything that happens on campus/access infrastructure must be done in-band.

These are just a few of the differences. Now though, the major barriers to open campus/access networks have largely fallen away. Modern open networking solutions can deliver:

  • Full automation: Enterprises today have enough headaches just keeping legacy campus/access networks up and running; so they’re understandably reticent to adopt solutions that would require their scarce tier-3 network engineers to crisscross the globe installing and configuring switches. With modern, open networking solutions though, deployments can be fully automated.  New solutions can simply be turned on—the switches automatically connect back to a central server, pull down the correct configuration, and install it on their own. Add the simplicity that comes from collapsing access and distribution layers, and now even non-programmers can activate and configure hundreds of remote access switches with a few simple English-language commands – no programming skills required.
  • Strong security: Securing devices in a tightly controlled data center is relatively straightforward, with little need for mechanisms like network access control (NAC). Out at the network edge, however, things are quite different. As enterprises take on the expanding threat surface that comes with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and IoT trends, having centralized, policy-based access control of every port is absolutely essential. In the past, this was a major hurdle for open switches. Today, modern open access networking solutions fully integrate with major NAC solutions.
  • Broad ecosystem of tools: In the past, some enterprise infrastructure teams worried about their ability to manage and support open networks as effectively as legacy platforms. Today, there’s a large and rapidly growing ecosystem of open-source tools (like Ansible, Salt, Zabbix, and a host of others) to address everything from monitoring to telematics to analytics to AI. Enterprises have everything they need to manage, future-proof, and differentiate their networks.
  • Reliable supply chain and support: Until recently, open networking still had a reputation in some circles as a bit of a lab experiment. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Major IT suppliers like Dell (News - Alert) have recognized this new market opportunity and now offer a broad portfolio of open networking switching solutions for the entire enterprise. These solutions are fully backed by proven supply chains and global support that are the equal of those from any other major vendor.  

It’s Time to Get Open

If you’re intrigued by the possibilities of open networking, you’re not alone. Lab trials for the new generation of access-friendly open networking solutions are a thing of the past. Multiple U.S. Fortune 100 enterprises are currently running open switches in their production networks, having already replaced legacy vendor switching infrastructure. These companies are seeing huge cost savings – up to 70 percent in some cases. They’re simplifying network operations. And they’re putting in place far more flexible access infrastructures that are explicitly designed to meet the needs of the future—instead of staying stuck in a model built for the past.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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