What's Shaking up the Switch Market?


Networking today is not like it once was. Modern network systems are everywhere—in businesses both large and small, schools and homes. They are bigger, more pervasive and increasingly more complex. And, they have to accommodate an ever growing amount of data. The critical linchpin in ensuring these modern network systems operate at an optimal level is the switch; a specialized device that connects other devices together on the network and is responsible for receiving, processing and forwarding data to destination devices. Just as the networking market itself must evolve to meet the changing needs of its users, so too must network switches.

The three market segments

Who are these network switch users? They fall into one of three distinct market segments: the enterprise, data center or service provider. Granted, each segment has its own use cases and manner in which its networks are configured, but they are all driving the need for higher capacity, more programmable switches.

Fortunately, a number of technology trends have emerged to answer that need; including: 2.5G and 5G in the wiring closet; 25G, 50G and 100G in the data center; Network Function Virtualization (NFV), Software Defined Networks (SDNs), and white boxes (e.g., boxes without a well-known brand name). None of these are new trends. In fact, they’ve all been talked about quite a bit in the past year alone. What’s different; however, is that they are now shaking up the switch market and in the process, driving the evolution of the enterprise, data center and service provider market segments.


In the enterprise market, for example, the switch white box ecosystem is driving the need for open operating systems (OSs) and open interfaces on switch software development kits (SDKs). And as a result, an entire ecosystem is being built up around the idea of an open environment, with the availability of bare-metal switches, an open source SDK and companies delivering network OSs (NOSs) to run on top of it.

A key enabler of this ecosystem is OpenNSL, which provides open network application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow open source networking projects or applications to be developed on top of silicon-based network switch platforms from Broadcom. Thanks to OpenNSL, you can today buy a bare-metal white box, license open source drivers to use with it, and select your third-party NOS-of-choice to put on top of it. The next step will be open software that will allow you to bring in third-party applications, or plug-ins that plug into your NOS to add enhanced features and capabilities, much like the app store model for iPhones.

Another trend behind the evolution of today’s enterprise is the availability of 2.5G and 5GE in the wiring closet. While the availability of 2.5G delivers cost-effective multi-rate gigabit performance to 802.11ac enterprise access points (APs), it also means higher capacity links may be required and that’s driving a refresh in the wiring closet.

In other words, as the edge gets faster, it ripples back into the access in the core and those capacities have to increase. And now that you have faster APs, higher capacity switches, built-in link speed and overall capacity into the wiring closet, becomes critical, which in turn, drives higher capacity switches and faster uplinks into the core of the enterprise. 

Data Center

The same thing is happening in the data center. If you're now driving 25G or 50G to the servers, that means that the switches have to be higher capacity and the switch connections then have to move from 10 and 40G to 25G and 50G to accommodate the higher speed access occurring at the server. Here again, increases at the edge ripple through and increase the need for higher capacity and speed at the network core, with 100G meeting those needs. 

In the service provider market, NFV—a technology that allows network functions to be ported virtually from dedicated appliances to generic servers—is driving the need for more programmability in the network. That’s where SDN, a technology that simplifies networking by separating the network control plane from the data plane, comes in. It makes switches much more programmable and the network easier to program because it can be done so as a whole rather than as individual boxes.

Another key trend is that with higher capacity switches in the data center and 100G in the network core, comes the need for greater switch programmability. Increasing virtualization in the data center also demands greater network programmability. Service provider market SDN provides the solution. It not only makes the network easier to manage, but also enables the use of NFV. And, for those data centers exploring the white box concept, open APIs like those available with OpenNSL will be needed to put various NOSs on switches

Service Provider

Additionally, in the service provider domain, the availability of lower cost 100G coherent optical links is enabling metro networks to move from 10G and 40G to 100G connectivity, but in the process, it’s driving the need for higher capacity switches that can attach to those links. The 100G links, which are now coming down in cost due to integration, would predominantly be used for long haul networks and will allow service providers to introduce services faster than they did in the past. However, once again, more programmable switch deployments in service provider networks will be required to support that faster service enablement and provisioning.

Without a doubt, recent technological advances have, and will continue to have, a lasting effect on the networking industry. Now those effects are being felt by the switch industry and in turn, rippling down to the enterprise, data centers and service provider market segments. The net affect will mean increased switch capacity, switch fan-out in terms of radix (e.g., how many ports per switch) and switch programmability—all advances which promise to help simplify and flexibly scale networks to accommodate the evolving needs of these dynamically changing market segments.

Nicholas (Nick) Ilyadis serves as Vice President and Chief Technical Officer of the Broadcom Infrastructure and Networking Group (ING), where he is responsible for product strategy and cross portfolio initiatives for a broad portfolio of Ethernet networking products. 

Edited by Peter Bernstein

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