How Pica8 Brings Remote Provisioning Power to White Box Switches

PRODUCT ANALYSIS: Pica8 leads the charge to bring network automation and provisioning to branch offices using white box switches.

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Open networking software developer Pica8 has launched the Pica8 Nymble Automation Framework, which bundles together server-based tools and agents to automate software installation and configuration across open, white box and brite box switches. Nymble has the potential to displace industry network switching leaders, such as Cisco and Aruba, by bringing advanced automation tools to lower cost open and white box switches.

For the record: The term “brite box” comes from a combination of the white box switches everybody knows and the idea of branding. These switches are similar to white box switches, but they are preloaded with a vendor’s proprietary operating system and support/maintenance services.

White box switches may have been the ideal SDN vision, but brite box switches give admins a better chance to use all of the benefits of SDN. Much like white box switches, brite box switches are entirely open, so users can enjoy the flexibility that is expected in a software-defined network. Brite box switches eliminate the need to have an internal network software team write an operating system.

Pica8’s Nymble is built upon the open-source platform known as Ansible, which provides the foundation for managing PicOS-powered switches, while also allowing for the centralized installation of configuration files and automatic upgrades. The platform approach brings forth centralized management, as well as consistency to updates, patches and configuration, which, in turn, makes it much easier to manage distributed networks and branch offices.

The main potential of Nymble comes in the form of reducing management overhead and drastically reducing the man hours needed to manage far-flung switching hardware, while also increasing the security of those open switches and creating viable change logs. In today’s switching market, both accountability and security have become major concerns, especially in enterprises driven by compliance regulations. Having better control over open network technologies brings with it tangible benefits that can help reduce the total cost of ownership.

Pica8 took an interesting path toward building its automation framework; the company partnered with a Fortune 50 enterprise that was seeking to modernize hundreds of retail locations that were currently using a leading networking vendor’s switching equipment.

The primary goal was to define requirements that would enable the large retailer to install switches more quickly and with ease, allowing the replacement and reprovisioning of switching equipment to happen in a matter of weeks, instead of months. Pica8 took those requirements to heart and incorporated extensive automation capabilities to bring forth Nymble.

The Pica8 Nymble Automation Framework

The framework comprises server-based tools deployed on a virtual machine in either a public or private cloud, and agents that come preinstalled on the switches. The server, which is referred to as an automation server, consists of the following components:

  • Configuration Manager: GUI-based utility that defines the standard (“golden”) configuration to be deployed on switches along with any region or site-specific variations. The tool enables the uploading of configurations, editing of existing configs and marking any site-specific parameters. All configurations are tied to specific switches by the switch serial number and stored in a database
  • Image Manager: Used to upload and maintain one or more versions of the PICOS image files for each of the switch models supported. (PICOS is the Linux-based open NOS solution from Pica8.) When a switch is provisioned, it ensures the correct version of PICOS is installed.
  • License Manager: Obtains licenses from the Pica8 License Portal for switches being installed for the first time and updates licenses of switches that are reaching the end of their support entitlement. It also generates an inventory report of all licenses currently installed on Pica8 switches deployed in the customer’s network.
  • Automation Manager: Automates the complete process of switch/network discovery, code update, installation of configuration and license and remote activation of the switch in the network.

With adoption of automation and unified management, Pica8 is in a position to drive the open switch market forward and bring additional options to enterprises looking to modernize branch offices, while also adopting open networking ideologies.

While the financial benefits may be difficult to conceptualize at this point in time, the lower costs of open networking hardware and reduction in man hours are poised to deliver some tangible benefits in the near term. However, major switch vendors are sure to take notice and bring forth new capabilities and pricing structures that will keep them in the game for the long term.

Frank Ohlhorst is a veteran IT product reviewer and analyst who has been an eWEEK regular for many years. He has written several books, including "Big Data Analytics: Turning Big Data Into Big Money."