It also has given rise to new companies like Cumulus, Big Switch Networks, Midokura and Pica8, which make network operating systems and other software that are not tied to specific hardware but can run on most commodity systems, including white boxes and bare-metal hardware. It's an idea that is catching on with a growing number of organizations, according to Calvin Chai, director of product marketing for Pica8.
Companies have been buying networking technologies essentially the same way for 25 years, Chai told eWEEK. Now they're hearing about the benefits that the disaggregation of software and hardware can bring in both performance and costs. They're also seeing what the hyperscale organizations are doing.
"A lot of the customers we're talking to are not Facebook, they're not Amazon [and] they're not Google," he said. "They're saying, 'I don't have the resources they do.'"
However, they want the capabilities, and are turning to white boxes running software like Pica8's PicOS operating system—which is built atop an unmodified Linux kernel—or similar offerings from Big Switch, Cumulus and others, Chai said. And it's not only the big players: "We are seeing a fair amount of enterprises as well," he said.
The move to white-box networking gear also is helped by the development of the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), a technology developed through the OCP that enables businesses to easily load a network OS onto a bare-metal switch.
The growth of white-box hardware in the data center continues to be a competitive threat to established OEMs. In a report in December 2014, analysts with the Dell'Oro Group said the virtualization trend and the growth of server vendors from China was keeping the global server market depressed. They estimated that 25 percent of the servers shipped last year went to cloud environments, and that the percentage will grow in the future.
"Consequently, traditional server vendors' performance is being negatively affected as white-box servers continue to gain traction in cloud deployments, comprising about 10 percent of server shipments in the third quarter 2014," Dell'Oro Director Sameh Boujelbene said in a statement at the time.
However, not all analysts see the white-box trend as such a significant threat. Writing in a research note in February about Cisco, Bernstein Research analyst Pierre Ferragu said that "while some observers continue to remain vocal with alarming comments about Software-Defined Networking, Hardware Commoditization and other tag words we largely find meaningless, we see Cisco's momentum in Enterprise accelerating."
Still, many OEMs are not sitting idly as white boxes find their way into more data centers. Instead, they are becoming active players in the growing array of open-source industry consortiums, from the OCP to the OpenDaylight Project, which is working to develop a standard framework for SDN and NFV. In addition, they're building out their portfolios with branded products designed to offer the flexibility and lower cost of white boxes while leveraging the support and services they can offer that ODMs can't match.
Most recently, HP officials earlier this month announced its Cloudline family of servers for cloud and hyperscale environments that are a break from the vendor's traditional ProLiant systems.