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Summary:

Not content with open sourcing the server and storage hardware inside data centers, Facebook’s Open Compute Project has teamed up with others to build an open source top of rack switch. Here’s why it matters.

Frank Frankovsky of Facebook holding an AppliedMicro ARM board.
photo: Stacey Higginbotham

The Open Compute Project, which Facebook launched a little more than two years ago, has decided that utterly disrupting the server and storage market isn’t enough. On Wednesday, it said it would solicit input on an open source top-of-rack switch.

The project, in a presentation by Frank Frankovsy at Interop, said it was taking a slightly different tack with its design, deciding to get input from others before actually making and releasing the hardware to the community. However, just because the hardware isn’t designed yet, Facebook isn’t going to twiddle its thumbs for a traditional multi-year design cycle. Frankovsky told me in an interview that he expects the hardware to b out in 9 to 12 months.

“We have built these islands of openness in the data center but the last element, and the one that was connecting the compute and storage, was the network,” said Frankovsky. “And there is a lot of pent-up passion out there for breaking open this appliance model.”

Networking is the last bastion of proprietary profits

Prepare to be disaggregated, switch!

Prepare to be disaggregated, switch!

For those who don’t dwell in data centers, the top-of-rack switch is the networking gear that sits on the top of a rack of servers directing traffic between those boxes and between the other racks in the data center. While the networking world is all aflutter over the promise of OpenFlow and software-defined networking, very little real progress has been made in building switches for the webscale data center.

Google, a few years back, had famously issued a request for a new type of switch that would fit its very specific scaled-out needs and no one responded. Now the search giant makes its own hardware. But soon after that, Andy Bechtolsheim saw the need for Google-like speeds and scale and started Arista, a switch company that has dominated in the webscale, financial and high-performance switching space. Meanwhile, at the lower end, Cisco’s cheaper Nexus line of switches have done really well.

Facebook's Najam Ahmad.

Facebook’s Najam Ahmad.

Yet, these options aren’t palatable for Frankovsky or Najam Ahmad of Facebook (Ahmad will be at our Structure conference in June discussing more about Facebook’s networking strategy). On the existing product side, Frankovsky is frustrated by hardware that doesn’t play nicely at scale. He specifically mentioned that the side venting of heat on switches means he can’t place them right next to another switch. Ahmad, who is in charge of the social-networking giant’s network, is concerned about getting out of the proprietary OS model.

“We want it to be OS-agnostic so we can use one from our existing provider or build our own,” he said. He added that he’d prefer an open Linux-based implementation. These proprietary OSes — Cisco has IOS, Juniper has Junos and Arista has EOS — are one of the reasons that companies are locked into one networking gear provider. They are also stuck using proprietary code to make changes.

Who will be the Red Hat of the networking OS?

Networking cables along the ceiling at Facebook HQ.

Networking cables along the ceiling at Facebook HQ.

If you are chock full of technically savvy people, losing the agility that comes from writing your own code as well as paying higher prices for the proprietary hardware and software combination is probably maddening. Hence Facebook’s interest in the open source OS. Of course, building out the underlying hardware is only the first step, the next will be supporting an OS that runs on top of that system.

While Facebook might build its own OS, not every company will want to do that, and Facebook may not open source its own networking OS if it ever makes one. That leaves a market opportunity. Perhaps a firm like Arista might move in here with an open source version of EOS, although given that Arista uses merchant silicon in its boxes, putting up an open-source version of its software would eat into its margins.

This is neither Open Flow nor SDN

But let’s go back to the box. Facebook is working with Broadcom, Intel, The Open Daylight Foundation, the Open Networking Foundation and Big Switch as some of its collaborators on this project. The box itself might run x86 hardware or a proprietary ASIC, according to Frankovsky. As for the protocols, Open Compute is going to see what the other collaborators want.

Software-defined networking

Software-defined networking

But for those wondering about Open Flow support, it’s likely. Frankovsky said that the Open Networking Foundation asked Facebook to get involved via the Open Compute Project with making open networking hardware. While Frankovsky and Ahmad didn’t cop to it, I know there has been frustration in many areas of the webscale and networking world that the promise of commodity hardware that Open Flow could offer has not really hit the market in a way that offers the most flexibility for data center operators.

Frankovsky said that the ONF approached Open Compute (Facebook is a founding member of both organizations) in part because it believed it could move quickly on this. And it will. But it’s worth noting that this announcement is about an open source top-of-rack switch, not a controller and not some type of software-defined networking play.

Other companies may take this box and perhaps an open source OS if one is developed, and then layer on some type of controller software to make a software-defined network, but this is just a box.

That being said, this is a box that could seriously disrupt the existing players in networking, from giants like Cisco and Dell all the way to smaller startups like NoviFlow or even Pica8. Much like Facebook is changing the server market with Open Compute, we’ll see if it can tweak the model and do the same in networking.

  1. Glad to see more people take notice of the importance of shifting the center of value in networking from hardware to software. A network whitebox approach with generally available and programmable hardware will help set free the potential of software in the network. This will shift not only the economics of networking, but will start a new wave of innovation that we have not seen in this space in a long time. – Stu Bailey, Infoblox

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    1. Hey Stu. That’s a really important point, which is why I have been so stoked about this space even though it seemed stalled for a while.

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  2. TechVilli.com Thursday, May 9, 2013

    Facebook Open Compute project seems to be an outsource one and posing threat to giants in this market with feedback and reviews from others before launch and its cool.

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  3. Reblogged this on Virtualized Geek and commented:
    I’m hopeful of this white box approach to networking but cautiously optimistic. It would be great to put opensource software of openswitch like software on white box devices. While not SDN or Openflow directly it does give a great deal more capability to SDN type implementations. As the interface into the hardware layer is open and standard.

    My reservation is the ability to innovate at the hardware layer at the same pace you can now with proprietary operating systems. Who’s going to invest in make a white box fabric that will compete with Cisco, Juniper and Arista? Top of the rack is a start but ultimately we’d like to see this in the core as well. I have a difficult time seeing open compete at the entire data center fabric level. I’m hopeful however that it will.

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    1. Interestingly enough, Mellanox announced an Open Ethernet Switch Initiative back in March.
      http://www.mellanox.com/openethernet/

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      1. Oh I meant to link to that in my comments on Ethernet up top. Thanks for putting that here.

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