Data center nowadays are expanding dramatically as new advanced technologies and explosive demand drive the need. According to Dell'Oro's Data Center IT Capex 5-Year Forecast Report in early 2022, the global data center switch Capex is forecast to grow 10 percent by 2026. Hyperscale cloud server providers will double their data center spending over the next five years. What are the newest trends in data center switches? In this article, we'll walk through the three main trends that will reshape the data center switch market.
White box switches have been in development for several years, and nowadays more and more large data centers are embracing white box switches.
The popularity of white box models has a lot to do with the growing cloud network development. With the rise of cloud data centers, cloud networks are required to be agile, flexible, scalable, low-cost, etc. Traditional network infrastructure integrates software and hardware together, and generally has a high cost but lacks agility. Since it is difficult to adapt to the future development needs of cloud networks, the network infrastructure is evolving to open networks with white box switches.
Different from the traditional "blackbox" network switches composing both switch hardware and software. White box switches need software to match their hardware, hence consumers have the more flexible options on what network OS they are going to load onto the switch platform. The white box switch provides an alternative choice, simplifying the network operation and improving overall performance, while significantly reducing the costs.
Over the years, white box data center switch shipments had an increasing growth trend. Amazon, Google and Facebook take up most of the total annual volumes. The rise of the white box switch is never an accident. The boosting market is driven by the maturity of bare metal hardware and the open network operating system. The white box hardware suppliers include DELL, Accton, Celestica, etc. And NOS vendors include Pica8, Big Switch, Cumulus, Arrcus and others. The Ethernet switch market has seen exponential expansion as more and more small companies emerge. Customers have more rights to consider which hardware vendor's product or NOS software vendor’s solution to choose, which helps them to customize the network solution to meet their needs.
White box switches in data centers will generally play three roles: the spine switch, leaf switch (Server ToR switch) and leaf switch (Gateway ToR switch). The three roles are responsible for handling different traffic (east to west or north to south) and require different ratios of hardware resources.
When the white box switch works as the spine switch, it is required to take care of leaf to leaf traffic and have high volume and multi-tenant features. The server leaf switch aggregates traffic from server node and connects to the core of the network while the gateway leaf switch works for north-south external traffic. Equipped with programmable chips, white box switches can be used in various roles, handling different traffic forwarding and delivering different functions.
During the past several years, we've seen the link speeds throughout the data centers increase from 25G/100G to 100G/400G. Many big data centers are deploying 400G data centers and using network switches with 400G interfaces to support elevated data rates to deliver high-performance applications.
With 400G being used in hyperscale data centers, data center connectivity is moving on towards higher speed—800G and even 1.6T. Many semiconductor companies have been developing 800G optics and made great progress. According to a report by Dell'Oro Group, driven by the trends of digital transformation, bandwidth-intensive applications and new AI workloads, the data center switch market will still shine in the coming years. It is predicted that the 800G switch port adoption rate is expected to exceed 400G data center switch port and will account for more than 25% of port shipments in 2025.
Another trend that should be noticed is that optics technology will play a more and more important role in the data center switches. Though global communication infrastructure was first deployed with copper cables, nowadays as the speed increases, and transmission distance expands, the link moves from copper to optical. Basically, the adoption of network switch interface speed is often ahead of the Internet standard, which is driven by the upgrade of high-speed data center switch interface and SerDes.
Traditional data center switches heavily rely on the pluggable optics installed on the switch panel. However, as the data speed continues to increase beyond 400G, the process becomes more and more complicated and requires more power to drive electrical signals from the switch ASIC near the center of a PCB to the pluggable modules at the front panel. In addition, driving and receiving the high-speed data signals would significantly increase latency.
Co-packaged optics (CPO) is the new innovation that addresses these problems. It enables optics located near the switch in the same package, therefore reducing power consumption and continuing the scalability of bandwidth of the network switch. Some pluggable optics vendors have introduced CPO into their roadmap and the coming years will witness the standardization of CPO technology and the commercial supply chains.