Amazon Web Services might be courting hybrid cloud customers in an interesting way

(Photo courtesy Flickr user Leonardo Rizzi / cc2.0)

There are lots of companies that understand the benefits of cloud computing but, for a variety of good reasons, can’t move everything in one fell swoop. Amazon Web Services appears to be working on a product for their existing data centers that could make getting to the cloud a little easier.

The Information reported Friday that AWS has been working on a “white-box” switch configured around networking connections to AWS servers that it intends to sell to customers. “White box” is a hardware industry term that has come to mean “not sold by an internationally recognized hardware supplier,” a product usually built using standard components and open-source software sold without a brand name.

Cloud companies have been building their own hardware inside data centers for a long time, but selling its own hardware would definitely be a shift for AWS. The Information suggested this means Amazon is taking on Cisco, the networking giant, and shares of networking companies like Cisco and Juniper slumped following the report. However, it’s far from clear that what Amazon is working on would be immediately competitive with their wares; white-box hardware has been around for years, and there’s still a fair amount of demand for premium switches because managing your own white-box hardware can be very complicated depending on the skill of your team.

It sounds like this project — which, of course, might just be a trial balloon that never comes to market — could make it easier for companies that want to work with AWS but can’t or won’t get rid of their data centers overnight to get started on the cloud.

Hybrid cloud makes a lot of sense for companies that have invested a lot of money in infrastructure and understand the computing needs of their workloads, but as the speakers during the Hybrid Cloud track at our GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit last month relayed, it’s not the easiest thing to do in practice. In response, cloud vendors have introduced products designed for hybrid users to bridge those gaps, such as the AWS-VMware partnership and Microsoft Azure Stack.

AWS’ white-box switch could simply be a way to sell hybrid customers switches designed around their workloads that integrate nicely with the broader AWS infrastructure. The product is reportedly being shepherded in part by James Hamilton, the longtime AWS engineer who is something of a legend in data center circles, having built and expanded the cloud leader’s infrastructure from its earliest days.

It would be pretty surprising to see AWS compete head-to-head against the big networking companies in a market that is flat at best, but stranger things have happened, and until more details emerge about the capabilities of the AWS white-box switch it’s hard to tell. The Information said AWS hopes to roll out these switches within 18 months, which implies they are in the relatively early stage of development.

An AWS representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

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