Question: How much of an Ethernet switch product is custom made by the vendor and how much is commodity components selected and assembled into a closed vendor solution ?
Answer: The majority of components inside a vendor switching product are commodity items.
There are many physical components inside any networking product. Consider a few of them:
- power supplies
- FPGA for BMC
- DRAM and CPU
- PHY modules for Ethernet interfaces
- Backplane modules
Today, vendors can choose to design their own version of the following to offer better performance or to use merchant silicon products
- Switching silicon
- Interface Processors
- Backplane modules
Note: only hardware is being considered and whitebox/whitebrand software is a separate topic.
Networking vendors have been moving to use standard components for more than a decade.
- Power supplies are chosen from existing designs,
- low complexity interface processors are widely available
- SFP modules are standards driven for interoperability
- Backplane Ethernet
Commodity Product Design
Vendors will outsource the non-core aspects of design such as
- physical chassis design to specialist firms in India or China for airflow and cooling
- software for BMC and other niche functions
- product validation is commonly outsourced
- design testing and review is outsourced, some may be done in-house but generally only high level review is done in-house
The vendors maintain a staff of engineers to manage the outsourcing of these design tasks and to review them for quality. They generally do not employ engineers on payroll. This outsourcing process is intended to lower design cost, remove business risk by outsourcing tasks and reduce staffing levels for improving staff-to-profit ratio for share pricing.
Outsourcing of product design and manufacture started in the late 1990’s and has increased as a percentage of the product over time. Most vendors employ very few engineers and outsource most of the work on a piecemeal basis for any new product. This removes financial risk from having staff on the payroll and no new products to develop.
Custom Product Design
The separation between merchant silicon/whitebox and vendor products is difficult to quantify in any practical manner. Discussions of the value of custom-designed silicon from Cisco, Juniper or Brocade vary according to the specific product family, product category.
The EtherealMind View
The market is adapting to the emergence of merchant silicon to replace low end switching and routing. Custom silicon is critical for high performance networking in specific use cases such as the Juniper PTX10000 and Cisco CRS products.
But the network edge is rapidly being moved to commodity manufacture and components and continues a trend started more than a decade ago.
Book on Whitebox Switches
You can purchase a draft copy of my book on whitebox Ethernet switches. I introduce the business and technology aspects from entry to mid-level.
Other Posts in A Series On The Same Topic
- Three Questions on Network Switch & Operating System Disaggregation (9th June 2015)
- Commodity Manufacture is the Majority of Switch Products (24th March 2015)
- Four Different Types of Ethernet & Whitebox Products (24th March 2015)