Industry Outlook is a regular Data Center Journal Q&A series that presents expert views on market trends, technologies and other issues relevant to data centers and IT.
This week, Industry Outlook asks David Woolf about Open Networking Install Environment (ONIE) technology and how it can benefit the data center. David is the Senior Engineer, Datacenter Technologies, at the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory (UNH-IOL). He has developed dozens of industry-reviewed test procedures and implementations as part of the team that has expanded the UNH-IOL into a world-class center for interoperability and conformance testing. David has also helped to organize numerous industry interoperability test events at both at the UNH-IOL facility and off-site locations. He has been an active participant in a number industry forums and committees addressing conformance and interoperability, including the SAS Plugfest Committee and SATA-IO Logo Workgroup. David has also served as cochair of the MIPI Alliance Testing Workgroup and coordinated the NVMe Integrators List and Plugfests.
Industry Outlook: What is the Open Networking Install Environment (ONIE)? What’s driving this technology?
David Woolf: The movement toward disaggregated hardware has been driven in large part by contributions to the Open Compute Project (OCP). Open designs for hardware have enabled dozens of new companies to build open hardware, design software to run on open hardware and provide solutions by integrating these items together for end users.
ONIE is one of the tools that enables this disaggregation in the network. It has been contributed to the OCP and has therefore been picked up by a number of white-box network-equipment providers.
ONIE stands for Open Networking Install Environment; it allows a network operating system (NOS) to be installed on any white-box switch hardware that supports this technology. Essentially it’s an extremely lightweight Linux implementation that is put on the mass-storage device in the switch during the manufacturing process, enabling automation of discovery and installation of a NOS image once installed on the customer network. ONIE supports installation from a variety of sources over a network using IPv4, IPv6 and tFTP, or even locally from a USB flash drive. Not only does this technology ease data center administration, it gives the end user a broader choice in software and hardware combinations.
IO: In time and profitability, how does ONIE technology benefit businesses?
DW: ONIE streamlines and automates NOS installation and updating as well as provisioning of network hardware. Normally, this task would require hours of technician time. ONIE saves time and money for data center operation. Furthermore, giving the user the ability to select hardware and software independently enables buyers to look for savings on both hardware and software purchases, and it allows them spend money on the network components that are most important to them. It thus provides an opportunity to save on capital expenditures. For example, a buyer may be able to purchase open hardware at a volume discount, then extend an existing NOS software license for less than purchasing entirely new solutions. If all the components support ONIE, a single software product can manage a variety of switching hardware.
IO: What are the challenges of ONIE technology implementation?
DW: The Open Compute Project has experienced a surge in participation over the last year. Community participation is the lifeblood of any open-source project. But the Open Compute Project is not just a single project; it’s a conglomeration of dozens of smaller projects. Ensuring that these varying components work together is a massive undertaking.
With so many new companies jumping into the open-networking space, many will be implementing ONIE for the first time. New CPU architectures and switching ASICs will be used, making the initial implementation more complicated. The ONIE code is open source, but each hardware vendor will need to adapt the code to its CPU architecture. Ultimately, end users want confidence that the ONIE implementation has been done correctly to enable the NOS/switch interoperability. To help end users have confidence that the equipment they purchase has been vetted and conforms to published ONIE requirements, the ONIE Logo Program launched to fully test white-box hardware for ONIE compliance.
IO: Why is interoperability important to open-networking/white-box hardware?
DW: Dependable interoperability is the foundation for truly open networking. ONIE is one of the most important tools enabling disaggregation of the network. Traditionally, end users had to buy and use the software that came with a particular hardware solution. A user would buy hardware from Vendor A, which only supported software from Vendor A and had to use Vendor A–branded optical modules and cables. Perhaps Vendor A provided great hardware, but its software may have failed to meet user needs. Perhaps the optical modules and cables were expensive. Vendor B may have good software features, but it isn’t supported on Vendor A hardware. Too bad. Components couldn’t be mixed and matched; they weren’t interoperable. It was an all-or-nothing choice. End users were stuck trying to figure out which monolithic solution best fit their needs, when a modular method would have been more beneficial. Users would need to compromise between what hardware best suited their needs, what was available at the best price and which necessary software features were available. ONIE breaks that model apart.
ONIE enables a disaggregated approach to building a network. If the hardware and software both support it, switch installation and provisioning can be automated. End users can select the best hardware for their workload, taking into consideration cost, performance and support. They can then select the software that has the desired features. Support for ONIE will allow this combination of network operating system and white-box hardware to work together. And this combination opens the door to capex savings when selecting hardware and software, along with opex savings thanks to streamlined operations for installing and provisioning the network.