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Interop: Open Compute Project to Tackle Network Switches

The Open Compute Project says it will turn its attention to developing open-standard network switches, news that won't be entirely welcome with makers of proprietary switches, especially Cisco.

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The biggest news at this week's Interop show wasn't one more vendor proclaiming fealty to software-defined networking or watching Cisco's Robert Soderbery try to shoot hoops with Cleveland Cavalier's Kyrie Irving. The big news came during Facebook's Frank Frankovsky's keynote when he announced that the Open Compute Project would tackle opening up network switches.

"Openness always wins," said Frankovsky to an enthusiastic crowd. The networking space had largely been left out of the Open Compute Project (OCP), which has been upending the data center from motherboards, through interconnects, through storage and racks. Now the organization, which grew out of Facebook's hardware operations but was hived off into its own foundation as participation grew, is tackling the network.

"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," Frankovsky wrote in the foundation's blog.

With that blog post and keynote, he managed to take a good swipe at all the vendors including switch leader Cisco. As Business Insider wrote, "This could disrupt the $22-billion-a-year Ethernet switch market that mostly belongs to Cisco. Cisco owns more than 60 percent of it, according to IDC."

The concept of building an operating system-agnostic, top-of-the-rack switch brings the same disruptive model to the network that is currently rolling through the server and storage industries. While the concept of software-defined networks has been (sometimes reluctantly) embraced by the networking giants, the definition of SDN can vary with the vendor and often refers to a software management layer running on top of existing networks.

The Open Compute plan is a green field approach that will start with a clean sheet rather than an existing design contributed by a foundation member. Facebook's manager of the network team, Najam Ahmad, will head the project, which is due to have its first meeting at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., on May 16.

The OCP switch project is only the latest example of traditional vendors being challenged not by new competitors but by new concepts. Vendors have been stumbling over one another to proclaim support for openness in technology architectures, but they are stymied by how to both support open standards and maintain their high-margin proprietary businesses.

The strategy for many vendors has been to try to shift to service organizations, which in theory at least can build longer-lasting customer ties than relying on hardware sales that in the open model can see customers easily switching vendors. Customer-driven organizations such as OCP present an especially thorny problem for vendors who want to champion their support for customers while also maintaining a healthy balance sheet.

As the OCP blog stated, "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."

The OCP project claims support from the following companies and organizations: Big Switch Networks, Broadcom, Cumulus Networks, Facebook, Intel, Netronome, OpenDaylight, the Open Networking Foundation and VMware. OpenDaylight is a project under the Linux Foundation founded by Cisco and IBM to develop an open-source SDN technology stack.

The speed and final design of the OCP switch are, of course, unknown at this early stage. However, the ramifications of a customer-driven, open-source switch independent of the network operating system should not be underestimated and is the biggest news in enterprise networking so far this year.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authors this blog for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.