Bare-metal switches poised to take off in data centers

By 2019, more than one-quarter of all switch ports sold will be on open switches

Bare-metal switches that can be programmed like Linux servers aren't just for big Web companies anymore. They may show up in a lot more average enterprises in the next few years.

Cloud-based service providers like Facebook and Google have been building data-center networks out of generic hardware and homegrown software for years. Now vendors including HP and Dell are beginning to sell switches much like they do bare-metal servers. They may pre-load an operating system and provide ongoing support, but that OS is open and their customers will have much more freedom with this new kind of gear than they do with traditional switches from vendors like Cisco Systems.

More IT shops are willing to buy into that proposition now that they can do so with a name they're familiar with, according to Cliff Grossner, an analyst at IHS's Infonetics Research. By 2019, just over one-quarter of all data-center switch ports that are sold will be on bare-metal devices, Grossner predicts.

That growth will come from smaller cloud companies and from enterprises of all sizes, Grossner said. Most of the big Web players have already adopted the new approach, so there won't be much growth in that realm. Those early adopters are so big that they account for almost all of the current deployments of bare-metal switches, which constitute 11 percent of all data-center switch ports.

The new class of switches marks a major change in networking. While a significant proportion of enterprise servers are based on standard x86 hardware running Linux, most network switches use proprietary chips and operating systems. While IT developers can modify Linux source code on servers, network engineers configure conventional switches through purpose-built tools such as command-line interfaces.

The number one reason enterprises will start buying bare-metal switches in the next few years is so they can program them like they do Linux servers, Grossner said.

"When you have a closed box with a CLI, you don't have full flexibility to do what you want," he said.

Most importantly, they want to make their switches part of automated data-center orchestration for tasks like bringing up servers, storage and switching together. Networking vendors may supply APIs (application programming interfaces) to make their gear work with other elements of the data center, but customers have to wait on the vendor to supply those APIs, he said.

Other enterprises will stick with tried-and-true networking software but put it on less expensive bare-metal switches, Grossner said. Cisco rival Juniper Networks announced last year it would make its Junos software available on a switch with open-source hardware. That switch, the ONX1100, alternatively can run software from any other vendor, Juniper says.

The savings can be significant. Last year, the average selling price of 10-Gigabit and 40-Gigabit Ethernet ports was US$308, while the price on bare-metal hardware was $112, according to Infonetics. Open hardware will help to drive the cost of those ports even lower over the next four years, Grossner said. Open networking cuts ongoing costs like management, too, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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