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White box servers turning tide back toward private cloud

Offering an affordable alternative to most vendor-branded servers, white box systems could lure some enterprises out of the public cloud and back into private environments.

For a while, it seemed like all of IT was destined to move to public cloud, changing the face of technology and eliminating many data centers. The driving force for this was, and still is, cost. Amazon Web Services is fairly inexpensive, and all its major competitors have had to match its pricing. But new ways in which the major cloud providers reduce their operational costs may suggest private cloud -- not public cloud -- is the more cost-effective option in the long run.

An emerging set of vendors called original design manufacturers (ODMs) design servers to-order -- called white box servers -- for major cloud service providers (CSPs), such as Google. Other large companies, including major banks and scientific labs, such as CERN, are examples of a widening customer base for these white box systems.

ODMs have a low-margin, high-volume sales model, more like a grocery store than a traditional high-tech vendor. The result is that CSPs pay as little as 30% of traditional server prices for the white box alternatives.

Technology has also converged on what we call commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems. These are very standardized designs; Intel and AMD, for example, provide motherboard reference designs to manufacturers, and all the interfaces are standardized. This minimizes the interoperability risks and maintenance requirements that we saw with proprietary computers.

How white box servers could impact private cloud adoption

All of this changes the buying profile for servers and storage across the IT industry and, most noticeably, in the cloud. Anyone buying gear for private cloud has the option to purchase low-cost, white box models from ODMs.

Anyone buying gear for private cloud has the option to purchase low-cost, white box models from ODMs.

In addition to being low-cost, a white box server could also reduce workloads for private cloud administrators, especially when managing the configurations and software images installed upon them. This is because white boxes adhere strictly to open COTS standards. The COTS model used in white boxes enables automated orchestration, converting manually driven scripts into automated policy deployments. Without this standardization, it's more difficult for organizations to build a hybrid cloud.

Despite their benefits, white box servers can pose a few challenges. For instance, finding vendor support for a white box server can be more difficult. However, compared with a decade or so ago, the risks are smaller and typically within the scope of most admin teams. In addition, white box servers could require organizations to work with multiple vendors -- such as different providers for drives and adapter cards -- but COTS standards help with this.

Exploring options for white box servers

Open source software that runs in clouds is flexible when it comes to hardware. It's unusual for a COTS configuration to not run OpenStack, for example, or Ceph. The open source software vendors or communities provide guidance on minimum hardware configurations to help reduce complexity.

Many organizations wonder whether they should use designs approved by the Open Compute Project (OCP). While the OCP is a good way to see what Facebook and others do, OCP designs may not be affordable for many enterprises.

Some of the old-guard server vendors have usurped OCP, offering "OCP-compliant" products at prices similar to those for traditional systems. However, many white box products do as good or better jobs, and may still be cheaper than OCP units. In addition, users can run any x64-compatible code on a white box server, so Linux and Windows are good to go, as are all hypervisors.

Low-cost white box servers are becoming mainstream and rapidly increasing market share. This is the future of computing, unless a radical technology shift moves things back to favor traditional vendors. It also opens up a cheaper alternative that allows private or hybrid clouds to become more cost-competitive with the public clouds.

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