4 trends driving the evolution of network hardware
For years, vendors have driven innovations in networking. They developed and manufactured their own chips, devices, and network designs, and businesses consumed what they produced.
As a result of this traditional vendor-driven process, many companies have found themselves with networks that are difficult to scale and modernize, said Dinesh Dutt, engineer, book author and co-founder of Stardust Systems, an observability company. network specializing in open source software. .
Recent networking innovations have fought the vendor-intensive model, pushing for open networking and scalability. While most common developments have appeared in software, Dutt said the industry is also seeing an evolution in network hardware.
Major trends in network hardware target changes in the following areas:
- how the switching chips are constructed;
- how the boxes are constructed;
- how the operating systems work on top of these boxes; and
- how the boxes are physically connected.
Some of the battles have already been won – like the rise of merchant silicon – but Dutt said the results of the others have yet to be played out.
1. Rise in market silicon
The use of merchant silicon for packet forwarding has largely become an industry standard, emerging from what was once a small trend.
Not that long ago, network vendors made their own chips and ran them on proprietary hardware. But those same vendors now often rely on merchant silicon in the form of switch chips from products from companies like Broadcom and Marvell.
Arista, for example, built his business on a merchant silicon model, instead of âdesigning and building its own switch chip,â Dutt said. Companies like Arrcus, DriveNets and Volta Networks have also based their business models on merchant silicon and white box networking.
Some network providers have even introduced their own merchant silicon. In 2019, Cisco announced its Silicon One chip that supports white box switches, in addition to its own hardware.
Dutt compared the rise of merchant silicon to the evolution of watches from Rolexes to basic watches. There was a time when a person had to buy an expensive Rolex watch to have a working watch. But now anyone can buy an inexpensive watch that tells the time accurately.
Likewise, he said, cheaper base chips have replaced traditional packet forwarding hardware, such as integrated circuits and application-specific processors. These chips are not only less expensive, but give businesses a wider range of options and flexibility in designing their networks.
SmartNICs see mixed potential
A related trend in merchant silicon is the development of intelligent network interface cards (NICs), functional accelerator cards (FACs) and data processing units (DPUs). These chips support additional functions – such as computing, routing, storage, and firewall – to offset some of the processing load on the servers.
Cloud providers have mainly led the charge with the adoption of smartNICs, enjoying the opportunity to optimize compute and bandwidth costs on such a massive scale, Dutt said. However, businesses typically do not have the same level of scale and would not benefit as much from adopting smartNICs.
âSmartNICs are great for offloading,â said Dutt. âThe question becomes at what scale, at what performance and at what cost?
That said, some analysts expect businesses to find value in smartNICs, CAFs, and DPUs as more use cases emerge. In its 2020 âHype Cycle for Enterprise Networks,â Gartner identified the CAF at the start of the cycle, likely to hit the âproductivity plateauâ in five to 10 years. Gartner said he expected business adoption to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 115% by 2024.
2. White boxes and fixed form factor switches
Most network providers have a device-driven ecosystem. As a result, companies have based their network design and management on the appliances they deployed and their specific configurations, rather than their business requirements, Dutt said.
âEnterprise network operators not only learned how to type a command on a box, but they also learned network design from these same vendors,â said Dutt. “This meant that the certifications issued were all structured around the strengths of a package rather than general network principles.”
Instead, he added, vendors should move away from appliance models and focus more on delivering a platform.
White box switches could help introduce a more platform-focused strategy. With white box switching, businesses can purchase basic appliances that do not have a preloaded operating system, allowing them to choose the network operating system they prefer. Network teams could better customize their network designs for the applications they need to support and reduce capital expenditures.
But white-box adoption has lagged among businesses, largely due to the complexity of onboarding and familiarity with traditional vendors. In some ways, the personalization offered by the white boxes is a deterrent, as some companies are unsure of which operating system to deploy or instead prefer the brand names they recognize.
Fixed Form Factor Switches
Another trend in networking devices mentioned by Dutt is the shift from large chassis-based switches to fixed form factor switches. Called a few times pizza boxes due to their shape, these switches are small, flat and stackable. They are also easier to troubleshoot in the event of a failure.
âThese fixed form factor switches have much simpler failures and are cheaper to buy and replace than the only monolithic software that was the chassis,â Dutt said. Due to their smaller size, fixed form factor switches can help reduce the footprint, overhead, and power consumption of an organization.
3.OS to manage network hardware
White box switching cannot be successful without the ability for businesses to choose which operating system they want to manage for their network hardware. Operating systems have undergone their own changes, in part due to an industry push for interoperability and open networking.
Dinesh DuttEngineer, author and co-founder of Stardust Systems
Over the past few years, many organizations have worked on developing open source network operating systems (NOS) that can help reduce reliance on proprietary hardware. An example cited by Dutt was the Software for Open Networking in the Cloud project, originally from Microsoft. Some network providers and startups have also tried to popularize open source NOS, he said.
Despite the industry’s decision to support more NOS options, open source operating systems face battles similar to those faced by white box switching, such as complexity and lack of support. And the fates of white boxes and open operating systems are intertwined.
âThe lack of NOS for white boxes hampers the ability to consume a white box,â Dutt said. For both to gain traction, Dutt said they require the same design change from a device model to a platform model.
4. More options for network cabling
Ultimately, network appliances and operating systems will not work if they are not connected. Wireless and cellular connectivity saw the development of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, and companies began to deploy in both their LAN and WAN.
But data centers can’t use wireless for connectivity, instead they need network cables. While network cabling has remained relatively calm in terms of emerging trends, some changes have occurred, Dutt said.
Traditionally, when companies purchased hardware from certain vendors, they also had to purchase corresponding cables from the same vendor. But, just as network appliances and operating systems have evolved towards openness and vendor-independent options, it is increasingly possible for businesses to purchase cabling from other vendors.
âOriginally, if you bought hardware from Cisco, you had to buy cabling that only Cisco provided,â he said. “Now it is not difficult for you to find hardware from Cisco, but cabling directly from Finisar.”
How to create or rearrange network designs
With various changes in networking, businesses may have difficulty knowing what to upgrade to or how to design a new network.
Dutt advised companies to prioritize the following steps when considering network hardware changes:
- Use fixed form factor switches whenever possible.
- Take the simplest network design.
- Don’t rely on vendors to determine what the design is.
- Work with server teams to simplify your network design.
- Think of fault areas differently – it is not about an individual fault, but about the network as a failed system.
- Understand network tools and find the ones that help you understand your network.
Ultimately, Dutt encouraged businesses to start simple.
âGo back to basics,â Dutt said. âConsider a vendor-independent network design. Consider a network design specific to your applications. And work with the server team rather than sitting across from them. “