Will Network Disaggregation Play in the Enterprise?

HP, Dell and Juniper target cloud for now, but some businesses might be on tap later

Disaggregation seems to be all the rage in networking these days.

HP is the latest to decouple merchant silicon-based hardware from operating system software, following Dell and Juniper. The strategy is to attract web-scale companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon who need the flexibility, choice, rapid deployment/decommissioning and cost efficiency of commodity “white box” switches capable of running a variety of software packages.

This is in contrast to vendor-specific switches with custom ASICs or merchant silicon tightly coupled with operating system and services software, which pervade the enterprise network. These products are also backed by comprehensive service and support and other vendor-added value, and this, as well as costs that vendors incur in developing the switches, factors into the product’s total cost.

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So the question becomes, does disaggregation make sense for enterprise shops as well as cloud providers? And if not now, will it ever?

“I think disaggregation will only work if the data center is the competitive differentiator for that business,” says Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness.

IDC analyst Brad Casemore says, “It’s not suitable for every enterprise, but there are some — mostly large but also a few smaller ones — in a number of vertical markets for whom it will be attractive. Typically, these organizations are moving quickly into hybrid cloud and are adopting a DevOps approach to running IT.”

Forrester recently published a report entitled “The Myth of White-Box Network Switches” that challenges the popular assumption that reduced hardware cost is the driver for disaggregation. In it, the firm asserts that merchant silicon-based hardware – whether from white box original design manufacturers or brand name vendors -- accounts for less than 15% of network switching costs.

white box chart

And the price differential between similarly configured white box and merchant silicon-based switches, with operating system software, is negligible, the report finds. Over a six-year period, an Accton AS5712-54X switch with a Cumulus Networks Linux operating system is only about $900 less -- $13,339 vs. $14,198 -- than a Cisco Nexus 3172PQ, the Forrester study found.

Eliminating superfluous software features will lower switching costs faster than cheap hardware, the Forrester study submits. Other factors to reducing – or increasing -- network switch costs include vendor-supplied add-ons that enterprises rely on: service and support, channel accessibility and product availability, and research and development for hardware/software optimization and warranty compliance.

Enterprises looking to reduce cost by purchasing disaggregated white box switches and operating systems will take on more responsibility for integration, support, supply chain management, and inclusion of any necessary additional software features, such as virtual chassis scalability, etc. Web-scale and cloud providers have the human resources wherewithal to absorb these tasks and associated costs.

Where is the benefit of disaggregation to the enterprise? Or, which enterprises could benefit?

“I see high-frequency traders and other financial institutions dabbling in it for some workloads, but they don’t have unlimited resources like hyperscale companies,” Kindness says. “For the general enterprise, such as General Mills or BMW, it doesn’t make sense.

“In addition, most of the servers in the general enterprise are not virtualized,” Kindness adds. “What fancy SDN or disaggregated environment do you need to create for a server with one application that isn’t going anywhere? Those just need a dedicated link with a static policy.”

IDC’s Casemore sees broader applicability of disaggregation in enterprises, especially those, as he noted, that are moving to hybrid cloud and adopting the DevOps model of collaborative development and operation.

“Network disaggregation can potentially save them capex dollars, but, more important, it can allow them to gain business agility and to improve their overall IT service delivery and efficiency,” Casemore says. “It could potentially give them the wherewithal to respond quickly to changing needs and to introduce new revenue-generating services as needed.

“There is an addressable market for this approach beyond hyperscale and cloud-oriented service providers. As hybrid cloud gains further momentum, and as enterprises reorganize their IT departments to speed service delivery and gain business agility, the addressable market for this sort of thing could expand further.”

An addressable market, and a competitive disruptor for networking hardware vendors chasing Cisco’s dominance in that market for decades. That includes HP, Dell and Juniper.

“These major IT players are long familiar with lower hardware margins than those that have typically accrued to traditional network hardware. They can afford to be disruptive in data center networking because they’re not market leaders, and they presumably understand that there’s a bigger game at play in the data center as a whole — in which cloud orchestration, and software and professional services also will be critical elements,” Casemore says. “In this context, network disaggregation — as well as open-source networking — could prove to be a useful competitive proxy for them.”

This story, "Will Network Disaggregation Play in the Enterprise?" was originally published by Network World.

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