Watch out Cisco: Facebook is designing open network switches

By on May 10, 2013, 2:00 PM

Social networking icon Facebook -- perhaps with a deserved emphasis on "networking" -- announced that is now expanding its Open Compute Project in an effort to take a fresh look at enterprise-level switch design. Facebook is hoping OCP will yield a high-end, highly-configurable switch that open, OS agnostic and relatively low-cost.

Armed with a server-room philosophy of disaggregation and open architecture, Facebook is poised to become a major disruptor in the rack-mountable hardware space; a market which has long-dominated by entrenched industry players like Cisco, Juniper and HP. Some big names are already on board with Facebook's plans though, including Broadcom, VMware, Cumulus Networks and the Open Network Foundation, amongst others.

Why reinvent the wheel, though? Facebook seems driven by the inadequacies of existing network hardware.

"Some of the things we've seen in off-the-shelf switch products lead me to believe that maybe the people that designed these switches have never been in a data center," Facebook's VP of hardware design told Ars Technica. "They do some really weird things with the way they mount into rack enclosures, with air flow direction. For example, we have a row of cluster switches that exhaust heat into each other. I don't know if it's just because the thermal engineer never envisioned an entire row of these things stacked in one row, or whether they just didn't know much about data center thermal dynamics."

Currently, enterprise-level switches lock you into a one-size-fits-all world of custom propriety; Cisco and iOS, Juniper and Junos and so on. Facebook wants switches to be more like servers, but just with more ports; something that can be tailored to carry out its specific duties.

"We should be able to treat a switch like a server in the rack," Frankovsky said. "We should be able to load a Linux-based operating system, and that server just happens to have a lot of I/O ports on it."

The once fledgling startup's growing collection of servers around the globe is truly massive, operating at scales beyond the every day experiences of most people. Facebook's personal experience running enormous server farms though make it an authority on large-scale data center needs and practical know-how.

Engineers and other OCP collaborators will be meeting on May 16 to draw up plans for what may become the future generation of open network hardware. Facebook and OCP already have some achievements under their belt though, such as Open Rack and various server design standards. Meanwhile, they also continue work toward improving other facets of data center environments as well.

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