A New Solution for SLED: Open, Automated White Box Networks


Benefits - Business Concept. Button on Modern Computer Keyboard. 3D Render.Operators of state and local government networks; K-12 networks; and higher education networks have long had to lean heavily on automation tools to deploy, configure, and manage their campus and access switching infrastructure due to the combination of multiple remote sites paired with lean IT support staffs.  This, in turn, has made them extremely dependent on the, at times extraordinarily pricey, automation tools served up to them by their vendors.  With Pica8’s first-of-its-kind automation framework explicitly designed for these networks they are captive no more.

Institutions in the state/local government and education (SLED) market face a vexing dilemma when it comes to their campus and access networks: they need to support growing amounts of traffic, but often don’t have the staff or budget to keep up with demand. What they need is a greater degree of automation, but that costs a pretty penny from legacy vendors like Cisco, and legacy automation can appear dauntingly complicated to operate in and of itself.

The growth in network traffic is inescapable. New Internet of Things (IoT) applications behind smart city efforts and the connected classroom are driving traffic growth, as is the increased use of cloud-based applications that have data going back and forth to every location. Users – whether employees, constituents or students – expect Wi-Fi to be available absolutely everywhere. And everyone has at least a couple of devices they use to connect, talk, stream and surf.

Meanwhile, many educational institutions and government agencies are saddled with networks built many years ago, when the three-tier network architecture dominated: access, distribution, and core. That access layer is now being overwhelmed, so agencies, departments and schools need to upgrade hundreds or thousands of access layer switches. That means replacing switch stacks and, in many cases, chassis switches as well.

Limited manpower, limited budget

That’s a tall enough order given typically tight budgets. Compounding the problem is the lack of manpower to actually install and configure the new switches – tasks that in large networks literally never end. It’s just not practical to expect scarce network engineers and admins to physically install and manually configure all of them.

Which leads to the need for automation. But here again we come up against harsh budget realities. Consider Cisco’s DNA Center automation package. It starts with an automation server that costs $100,000 or more. Then for every access switch you also need a license that goes for more than $1,000. So, for a network of say, 100 switches, the DNA Center list price will be around $200,000. 

Price tags like that are part of the reason users in the SLED market (and others) have long been looking at white box and brite box network alternatives. These open switches consist of the same underlying hardware used by legacy vendors (because they come from the very same suppliers) but run open, disaggregated network operating system software. Without the legacy brand name attached, the switches and software are a whole lot more affordable, making them a good fit for the SLED market.

A gating factor, however, has always been the automation solution. Simply put, there was nothing in the market comparable to DNA Center to automate the installation and configuration of dozens or hundreds of open white box access switches. Until now.

AmpConTM: Automation finally comes to open networks

Pica8, having already shipped the world’s first Linux-based network operating system, PICOSÒ, recognized this issue and set out to address it. The result is AmpCon™ (short for “amplified control”), the world’s first (and only) automation framework that can deploy, configure and manage an entire enterprise network of white box switches running PICOS. (AmpCon is the cornerstone technology in Pica8’s new ThresholdTM reference architecture for centrally managed, open white- and brite-box campus networks.)

AmpCon offers particular value to government agencies, K-12 school districts and higher education institutions that have multiple locations but limited networking staff resources. It brings zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) to open access and campus networks, automating Day 0 tasks including switch turn-on, image load, configuration, and licensing. AmpCon also addresses Day 1 tasks such as configuration validation, commit, rollback, and inventory. 

Perhaps the best news is AmpCon comes with an uber-SLED-friendly price tag, with introductory pricing of just $10 per switch per year. So, for that hypothetical 100-switch network, the AmpCon price tag is just $1000 per year, or 1/200th what a comparable Cisco DNA Center framework costs. And that’s on top of the capital expense savings of, typically, 50% for open switch hardware as compared to legacy switches.

Deployment Options Galore

Recognizing the rollout realities of its SLED customers, Pica8-powered switches managed by AmpCon are fully backward-compatible.  This means Pica8 switches can be incrementally deployed floor-by-floor, building-by-building, or department-by-department as budgets allow, or as a full-blown, centrally managed modern infrastructure replacement for an entire legacy network.

Also, the architectural decision as to whether to deploy AmpCon on-prem or in a public cloud is completely left to the customer.  Unlike much of the competition, there is no financial penalty for selecting the public cloud option with Pica8.

If that sounds intriguing, click here to learn more about AmpCon. And learn more about the whole PICOS ecosystem on our pages dedicated to government and education users, including case studies on city of Hoover, Ala. and the Calgary Catholic School District.


Tagged automation, White Box Switch, Open White Box, Cisco DNA, Zero-touch provisioning, ZTP, Ansible, Linux-based network operating system, Network Refresh, cloud network solution, automation framework, access networking, Ansible playbooks