In 2017 a top 3 telecom provider with a heavy retail presence (more than 4,000 stores in the U.S.) made a business decision that has been delivering solid dividends ever since: It started replacing some 5,000 Cisco Catalyst switches in its stores with Pica8’s PicOS® Software Switches on white box hardware.
The strategy is saving the company about 50% in capital and support costs. But cost savings accounted for only about half the rationale for making the change. The open strategy also gave the flexibility that the company wanted to implement a multi-vendor network with Aruba WiFi and enable an automation strategy, based on Pica8’s AmpCon™ Controller, that includes zero-touch switch provisioning in its stores and simplifies ongoing (switch) lifecycle management, thereby reducing operational costs.
The decision to replace Cisco
Five years ago, as part of its regular, rotating access switch refresh process, the customer examined its costs for upgrading the Cisco 3850 switches in its stores. The 50% cost savings the company identified came from replacing its Cisco switches with Pica8 PicOS Software Switches deployed bare metal on comparable power-over-Ethernet (POE) white box switches from Edgecore. Pica8 software runs on an unmodified Debian Linux-based kernel.
White box switches are built (by the same ODMs) on the same basic platforms in terms of chipsets as switches from Cisco, Juniper and the like, but without the brand name cost far less. Support costs are also considerably lower than what the customer was paying Cisco.
With Edgecore/PicOS switches installed in about 1,400 stores to date, and more on the way, the savings have panned out as expected. On top of the cost savings, three other factors collectively played an equally important role in the decision.
First, the company had plans to build an automation framework that would enable it to manage its entire IT infrastructure, including the network, from a single centralized console. The company wanted any new switches to support network automation tools with open APIs that would integrate with that framework, rather than Cisco’s proprietary automation platform and tools.
Second, even if the customer did decide to use Cisco’s automation tools (which eventually became DNA Center), in many cases doing so would mean incurring the additional expense of upgrading to the latest switch and software versions. This would require a massive unplanned upgrade and paying for features and functions the customer didn’t need in its stores.
Finally, the customer said it was not getting the level of responsiveness from Cisco that it needed, in terms of addressing bugs and issues with different features. In contrast, Pica8 consistently receives compliments on its responsiveness in our quarterly business review calls.
Pica8 passes the security test
After it made the decision to go with an open switch approach, the company held a proof-of-concept bake-off between Pica8’s PicOS and Cumulus Linux. Pica8 won out largely on the strength of our ability to address some access layer protocols that are critical to ensuring security and robustness in the access layer.
These protocols address issues like user authentication, and guarding against malformed packets as well as bombardments of spam traffic that can bring down switches – all issues of concern in access environments such as retail stores. Pica8 has been servicing campus and access networks since its inception, so we had no problem meeting the customer’s requirements. The competition had its roots in data center networks where such issues don’t generally come up.
Automation makes the grade
Pica8 was also able to deliver an automation framework that fit with the customer’s enterprise IT and network management vision.
Our AmpCon Controller enables several capabilities that help the customer cut its network operational expenses and enhance operational reliability, including zero-touch deployment. Installing a new switch in one of its stores is a simple process for the customer: plug it in, connect it to the network and turn it on. From there, an agent on the switch enables it to find the AmpCon server, update the software if necessary, add licensing, install a pre-loaded switch configuration and bring the switch up on the network in a single deployment workflow. That means the customer can quickly deploy switches with no truck roll or on-site technician required – an important consideration given its stores generally don’t have IT staff on-site.
AmpCon also helps with ongoing operational tasks, including configuration backups and software updates. The customer can queue up software upgrades for all switches in a given region, for example, and execute it overnight with the push of a button. Should a switch fail, AmpCon can execute a RMA workflow to push its configuration to a replacement switch. It will also flag any switches that have support scheduled to expire soon, and automatically install updated licenses with support extensions.
Reliable switches are essential to any company with distributed sites. They support network traffic and IT infrastructure that is critical to keeping sites functional, so they need enterprise-level features that promote reliability and ease operations. As our work with this large customer shows, Pica8 understands those requirements well and can deliver them even under the most demanding circumstances. And our open approach means you not only save on costs but can take advantage of the flexibility that is inherent to open networking.
Niraj Jain is the COO of Pica8.