Facebook’s hardware VP says we’re very close to open source switches

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Six months ago, the Facebook-led Open Compute Project shared its plans to work with networking vendors on creating an open source top-of-rack switch, and now that mission is almost complete. According to a blog post by Frank Frankovsky, chairman and president of the Open Compute Project and VP of hardware design and supply chain operations at Facebook, the organization is set to vote on and likely approve four specifications soon.

The idea of creating an open source switch is a natural expansion of the OCP’s original mission of creating open source servers and its subsequent evolution into open source storage-system designs. The organization’s members — Facebook probably chief among them — want to see gear that’s designed to handle the physical realities of a webscale data center (e.g., around power and density) but also that lets them innovate however they see fit on the software side. If they’re buying into software-defined networking, for example, they don’t want to buy into their switch vendor’s approach to that technology by default.

As Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham noted in May while covering the announcement of the open switch effort, the networking layer is arguably the last bastion of proprietary dominance in the data center. “These proprietary OSes … are one of the reasons that companies are locked into one networking gear provider. They are also stuck using proprietary code to make changes,” she wrote.

Frankovsky highlights four proposed specifications in his blog post — three for top-of-rack switches by Broadcom, Intel and Mellanox, and a contribution by Cumulus Networks of its Open Network Install Environment. “Broadcom¬†was the first to develop a full specification for and implementation of an open switch,” he notes. The Cumulus contribution could be interesting because it would allow users to decide their choice of operating systems and hardware and install new software as needed.

Frank Frankovsky of Facebook holding an Applied Micro board.

Frank Frankovsky of Facebook holding an Applied Micro board designed to OCP specs. Source: Stacey Higginbotham

The Open Compute Project was quick to make a splash in a server industry already under fire from trends including virtualization, cloud computing, and the fact that mega-buyers such as Facebook, Google and Amazon often prefer to build their own gear or buy stripped-down, low-margin boxes from vendors. The networking industry hasn’t been suffering quite the same level of disruption, although the SDN craze (and related efforts such as OpenFlow) has forced vendors to rethink their strategies (and Google, at least, is building its own switches).

We’ll see how quickly and strongly the networking giants such as Cisco and Juniper are forced to react to the promise of open source switches and software, or if they’ll have to at all.

For more on Facebook’s network infrastrucutre plans as a whole, check out this interview with Facebook’s Jay Parikh and Najam Ahmad from Structure 2013.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user macka.

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