Why White Box Vendors Have Not Penetrated the Large Enterprise Market…and What They Can Do to Change This

by Nick Lippis

According to International Data Corp (IDC), worldwide Ethernet switch sales increased 3% over the previous year to $24.4 billion in 2016; that’s a big market. IDC also notes that Arista’s share of the overall data center switching market has grown from nothing in 2010 to over 9% in 2016; it is the largest winner in the new Ethernet switch market. IDC also notes that Cisco’s share has fallen from about 80% to about 58%. Huawei, Juniper Networks, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), represent single-digit market shares in this market segment. Those that represent the white box market represent less than 1% of the overall network switch market. So, what happened to the big enterprise white box market that was supposed to take over the world?

Back in 2013, there was much industry talk about disaggregation in the network switching market, where hardware would be commoditized, and a new networking software industry would emerge to create options and choices in the type of network infrastructures IT business leaders could build. Disaggregation did happen, but this activity was focused on the hyper-scale and large service provider markets. There are many options to buy network switches that are based upon merchant silicon running either open or closed switch operating systems.

Pure white box switching companies include Agema Systems, Edgecore Networks, Pica8, IP Infusion, Foxconn Technology, Accton Technology, Celestica, Quanta Computer, and others. One can acquire white box switches with proprietary switch operating systems from established players such as Arista Networks, Cisco Systems, Pluribus Networks, Extreme Networks, Juniper Networks, HPE, Dell, Nuage Networks, and Huawei. Some also offer merchant silicon hardware-based switches and open switch OSs as a package. There are companies that focus exclusively on network software running on commodity hardware such as Big Switch Networks, Cumulus Networks, SnapRoute, et al. Therefore, with so many options, why hasn’t the white box market found a warm welcome in the large enterprise market?

For the ONUG Community, it’s the level of difficulty – perceived or real – to design and deploy service and support as well as specific company longevity prospects. Most ONUG IT business leaders view the white box market (merchant silicon running open switch OS) as highly fragmented and unorganized, and thus high risk. But most of these barriers of entry can be overcome if this ecosystem of vendors would organize to show and demonstrate to the large enterprise market what they have to offer. Here are some of those high-risk factors:

Level of Difficulty: The idea of buying switch hardware from one company, a switch OS from another, and then software features – such as monitoring, management, security, etc. – from others, offers choices, but frightens many IT business leaders and operational groups. Of main concern is if they have the skills to build such a network infrastructure and, most importantly, to operationalize it at scale. The large enterprise IT departments have not invested in the skill sets to build and manage this type of infrastructure. Consider a data center with 1000s of switches made up of 10 to 20 hardware and software companies, all dependent upon each other to deliver a solution. How is that operationalized? How difficult is it to troubleshoot, identify faults, and resolve issues? How does one company’s software update impact the system as a whole? Where are the reference designs and best practices? How high does this model scale?

Service and Support: The white box market is most appropriate for a service and support company to address the issues mentioned above. Dell offers service and support for its white and brite box ecosystem of partners. It would be healthy to have a wide range of options here, especially from firms like Red Hat, that would maintain version control, ensure reference design support, and provide best practice guidance. Without a healthy service and support model for the white box market, its chances of success in the large enterprise are limited.

Further, many IT leaders do not understand how to integrate white box solutions into their existing network infrastructure. As one ONUG Community member put it, “I can buy a wedge switch, but I have no way to integrate it into my infrastructure and service and support structure.”

Company Longevity: IT business leaders are used to the risk associated with buying technology from start-ups where longevity risk is high. Start-ups either make it or don’t or are acquired. The white box market is no different; however, IT business leaders need to be comfortable that a key part of their network infrastructure may be vulnerable to longevity risk.

While these barriers of entry are high, some (such as Big Switch) have found success in the large enterprise market thanks to its holistic approach to a network software stack and its focus on monitoring plus cloud fabric.

To be clear, there is a vibrant, very healthy, and growing network software market. Proof points include Forward Networks, Kentik, Thousand Eyes, Tigera, StackRox, Apstra, et al., as they are finding success as these network software companies are agnostic to the underlying network infrastructure; that is, white, brite, or closed switching.

Make no mistake about it, the network switch market is very healthy and will continue to be so. Established players, such as Arista, continue to innovate their eOS software, thanks to offering API access, container versions, plus CloudVision for automating NetOps tasks. Cisco recently announced its cloud scale switches, which promise high performance and lower cost. Extreme Networks has acquired various network switch companies in a quest to grow its market share while Juniper Networks has seen growth of its share of the network switch pie as of late.

The ONUG IT Community welcomes the white and brite box ecosystem of vendors to come hear their buying concerns so that white and brite box vendors may take corrective actions to reduce the risk of deployment. The best thing that the white and brite box ecosystem of vendors can do is participate in the ONUG Community en masse to showcase to the large enterprise market that there is a healthy and thriving ecosystem available to them. Without this, the existing trends will continue with the barriers of entry only getting higher.


Author Bio

Nick Lippis pictureNick Lippis


Nick Lippis is an authority on corporate computer networking. He has designed some for the largest computer networks in the world. He has advised many Global 2000 firms on network strategy, architecture, equipment, services and implementation including Hughes Aerospace, Barclays Bank, Kaiser Permanente, Eastman Kodak Company, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Liberty Mutual, Schering-Plough, Sprint, WorldCom, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and a wide range of other equipment suppliers and service providers.

Mr. Lippis is uniquely positioned to comment, analyze and observe computer networking industry trends and developments. At Lippis Enterprises, Inc., Nick works with entrepreneurs evaluating new business opportunities in enterprise networking and serves as an independent investor and advisor.


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