The enterprise infrastructure of the late 90s and early aughts is no match for the demands of webscale companies like Google or Facebook, or even cloud providers like Amazon. Thus, the giants in the web and cloud worlds are demanding new infrastructure and remaking the world of computing for their own needs.
These giants are deconstructing the server, rethinking the data center and building new databases. And they are also rethinking how they build out networks. To that end several companies have latched onto the concept of software defined networks to help build an abstracted and programmable layer on top of the physical networking gear. This gives systems administrators more flexibility, but it doesn’t help with another problem that many data center providers face, creating faster equipment that can carry their escalating traffic.
This is where Plexxi, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup sees its opportunity. It has built what it calls a switch, but is actually an entirely new type of networking gear aimed at delivering a lot of traffic between racks of servers as fast as possible. Plexxi also offers Plexxi Control, management software that runs on commodity hardware and routes traffic around the network. Inside the Plexxi “switch” are optical components normally found inside telecom gear. Plexxi has designed the first networking gear for the data center that uses optics instead of electronics to solve the networking bottleneck.
Each switch has 32 10-gigabit-Ethernet capable ports and can be connected to other Plexxi switches. For now the company has tested deployments of its gear supporting 10,000 servers, but Plexxi CEO and CTO Dave Husak assures me it can scale bigger. It will have to. For example, Facebook, a potential customer, is estimated to have more than 150,000 servers. The Plexxi gear allows for the network to become essentially flat — a rack of servers talk to the box and the boxes have the speed and capability to talk directly to each other. Instead of hierarchies or trees — software running on the switch tracks where virtual instances have moved and routes traffic to them over this single layer. This speeds up the networking and simplifies the gear supporting the network.
Plexxi has done something unique in its box worth looking at. It has replaced the traditional electronics networking with optics, which boosts speed but also reduces costs and power draw. To keep costs in line it buys off-the-shelf components and strips them down to the essentials. While the transceivers and equipment inside telecom networks cost thousands of dollars, Plexxi’s entire box sells for $64,000 in part because it did away with things like line cards and amplifiers that telcos use to boost the distance an optical signal can travel.
Using optics inside the boxes and connecting the boxes directly together in a flat network also eliminates a lot of cabling and additional electronics that both add costs and increase the power consumption. Husak told me the Plexxi switch draws milliwatts per port. The latest switch from Arista draws 5 watts per port.
Husak is a veteran on the networking world, remembering how the switch replaced token ring and other networking architectures in the 90s. Now, twenty-some odd years after the first switch was unveiled, Plexxi is poised to remake networks again with an entirely new systems architecture and design. It has almost $50 million in funding and has been building this switch out since 2010. This is a company unafraid of taking on Arista, Cisco and other giants in networking in a quest to re-imagine the data center of the future.