Facebook-Led Open Compute Project Takes Aim at Networks

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-05-09

Facebook-Led Open Compute Project Takes Aim at Networks

The Facebook-led consortium that has made inroads in creating more efficient servers, storage appliances and motherboards is now turning its attention to data center networks.

Members of the Open Compute Project (OCP), which just celebrated its two-year anniversary, are seeing what others have when looking at the increasingly virtualized data center: that networking continues to be the bottleneck in an otherwise more dynamic, scalable and flexible environment.

That reality is what has given birth to the burgeoning software-defined networking (SDN) and network-function virtualization (NFV) pushes, and it is now fueling the OCP's newest efforts. According to Frank Frankovsky, vice president of hardware design and supply chain for Facebook and president and chairman of the OCP, the project has grown significantly over the past two years, not only in the work it's doing but in the number of official members (more than 50) and participants (thousands).

"This is amazing progress in such a short span," Frankovsky wrote in a May 8 blog post on the OCP Website. "But something's missing. We are working together, in the open, to design and build smarter, more scalable, more efficient data center technologies—but we're still connecting them to the outside world using black-box switches that haven't been designed for deployment at scale and don't allow consumers to modify or replace the software that runs on them."

He also talked about the OCP's network switch plans during a keynote speech at the Interop 2013 show in Las Vegas on May 8.

Web 2.0 companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon run massive, dense data centers that handle huge amounts of small workloads. The keys to such data centers include performance, energy efficiency, low cost and modular design. Unable to always find the exact data center resources they need, some of these companies are opting to design their own servers, storage appliances and power supplies using off-the-shelf components.

They're also doing the same with the network, with some opting for equipment from white box makers and, like Google, embracing the OpenFlow controller protocol, which is a key component of many SDN efforts. Google reportedly also created its own switch, dubbed Pluto.

In 2011, Facebook kicked off the OCP, an initiative through which the social networking giant and other members could create open-source standards for highly energy-efficient data centers and IT hardware. A natural next step is the networking infrastructure, according to Frankovsky.

The OCP's switch project will be headed up by Najam Ahmad, who heads Facebook's network engineering team, and will include a number of tech vendors, including SDN vendors Big Switch Networks and VMware (which got into the SDN space last year with its $1.26 billion acquisition of Nicira). Other companies include chip makers Intel and Broadcom and networking vendor Cumulus Networks.

Facebook-Led Open Compute Project Takes Aim at Networks

In addition, the Linux Foundation's OpenDaylight group and the Open Networking Foundation—both pushing open standards and common platforms for SDN—are participating. Work on the OCP's networking project will begin at the consortium's Engineering Summit May 16 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Almost every established networking vendor—from Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks to Hewlett-Packard and Extreme Networks—is pushing its own SDN initiative. A growing number of startups, like Big Switch, also are looking to establish themselves in the growing market, which IDC analysts said could hit $3.7 billion by 2017. SDNs aim to remove the network intelligence from physical switches and routers and house it instead in software-based controllers, making networks more flexible and scalable and easier to program.

The OCP is aiming to create a specification and a reference box that can be used for an open top-of-rack switch that is also OS-agnostic. Many vendors have their own networking operating systems—for example, IOS for Cisco and Junos for Juniper—but OCP's goal is to enable businesses to design their own switches that can run whatever software is desired.

"It's our hope that an open, disaggregated switch will enable a faster pace of innovation in the development of networking hardware; help software-defined networking continue to evolve and flourish; and ultimately provide consumers of these technologies with the freedom they need to build infrastructures that are flexible, scalable, and efficient across the entire stack," Frankovsky wrote. "This is a new kind of undertaking for OCP—starting a project with just an idea and a clean sheet of paper, instead of building on an existing design that's been contributed to the foundation—and we are excited to see how the project group delivers on our collective vision."

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