Mega-scale Networks

Large-scale cloud operators are now building their own networks rather than buying them from traditional network vendors, a trend that is sending shockwaves across the networking industry.

At a recent Amazon Web Services (AWS) analyst meeting, distinguished engineer James Hamilton provided insight on why and how Amazon is building its own switches and datacenter networking software.

His explanation went to the heart of the shockwaves that mega-scale cloud providers are sending across today’s networking industry.
So why is Amazon building most of its own networking gear?

• Cost Savings – Amazon saves big time by buying network boxes directly from original device manufacturers (ODMs) rather than from traditional network equipment vendors.
• Minimizing Delays and Increasing Capacity – Building its own switches minimizes the delay in incorporating faster switch parts and increasing internal capacity.
• Greater Reliability – According to AWS, its homegrown switches are more reliable than traditional vendor switches, primarily because the software load is simpler.
• Problem Solving – Owning its own switch software has greatly accelerated AWS’s problem identification and remediation.

The advantages of high volume

If you buy enough switches or servers and are responsible for their software, multiple benefits can accrue from building your own boxes.
AWS saves money by removing the network vendor – effectively the middle man – from the delivery chain. Just a few years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible for a company to build its own switches because leading switch vendors such as Cisco designed and built advanced switch products only available in their own boxes.
More recently, many companies have started using ‘merchant’ parts, so a Cisco or Juniper top-of-rack datacenter switch is actually very similar to a ‘white box’ switch that is essentially being built from the same parts. In fact, most of the differentiation comes from the software that runs the switch, not in the components themselves.
In sum, neither server vendors nor network equipment vendors have factories anymore but, instead, use ODM contract manufacturers in Asia. So building your own switch today means working, for example, with Foxconn Electronics to build them rather than buying them from Cisco (which also contracts Foxconn to build them to its own specifications).
Importantly, buying them directly from an ODM in volume (which AWS and its peers certainly have) is cheaper than buying through a traditional vendor – and assures that the design is optimized for its specific use.

Industry-wide implications

Most of the large cloud providers – including Google, Facebook and AWS – have made the decision to build their own networks. A common motivation is to gain better control of their networks and to gain a better understanding of their traffic than had previously been possible with vendor systems.
The collective action of these cloud providers has clear implications for the networking industry. First and foremost, the availability of products from ODMs is making vendor-supplied equipment much less necessary. Unless something remarkable happens, most large-scale cloud operators are on the path of building and owning their networks rather than depending on the leading network vendors.
The result is a shakeup of the large network vendors – Cisco specifically – which will no longer be building the largest networks. This transformation is already having a profound impact on the development of new network technologies and architectures.

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