Facebook Launches Open-Source Switch, Tests Drone Internet

High-flying drone aircraft will provide Internet connectivity to rural areas of the world; new switch a challenge to standard networking vendors.

Facebook drone

Google has its automated cars, robots and space-related projects. Facebook also has some side projects of its own.

The giant social networking company followed up publicly June 18 with updates on a couple of long-range projects: It officially launched an open-source switch called Wedge it has developed through the Open Compute Project and is moving right along on using high-flying drone aircraft to provide Internet connectivity to rural areas of the world.

While onstage at the annual GigaOm Structure conference in San Francisco, Facebook Vice President of Infrastructure Engineering Jay Parikh revealed that the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company is now testing the use of the unmanned flying devices to bring the Internet to more people--and thus, more potential Facebook users--via infrared lasers.

Side Projects Aimed to Sustain Facebook Beyond Social Network

Back on March 28, Facebook acquired a high-altitude, long-endurance plane company, U.K.-based Ascenta, for $20 million to beam the Internet from high above to previously unserved locations. Parikh told attendees at the conference that the engineering team is now complete and in high gear working on the project.

CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is on record as saying that Facebook engineers are working not only to build drones but also satellites equipped with infrared lasers capable of beaming Internet connections to users on Earth. It's a flat-out challenge to institutional carriers all over the world.

In April, Google countered Facebook's acquisition by buying drone maker Titan Aerospace. Facebook had earlier been interested in buying Titan but passed on the company, instead selecting Ascenta.

"More than 20 percent of the world's population does not have the Internet," Parikh said. "We're building a global mesh network using free space optics that will provide Internet access to those who've never had it before."

The project is probably three to five years away from reality, Parikh said.

Open Source Switch May Prove to Be a Challenge to Others

Parikh also explained that the Facebook-led Open Compute Project is basically repurposing standard servers powered by Intel processors to replace more expensive, proprietary IT network switches.
Facebook Director of Hardware Engineering Matt Corddry told eWEEK that the goal is to use Wedge to "disaggregate the different resources onto our network, and you'll see this design pattern in a lot of what we do. You saw this in our storage, when we attached OpenVault to a network using a microserver.

"Our approach is sort of disaggregation through the network hardware. By making a switch into a server, effectively, we allow Facebook to use our server-based tool chain--operating system, management and monitoring systems, deployment systems--as well as providing an open software development environment for our software engineers. They can innovate on the software switching platform."

Members of the four-year-old Open Compute Project (OCP) 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, and that non-standard hardware and software is needed to fix the problems.

Specialized Data Center Hardware Now Required

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.

eWEEK editor/reporter Jeff Burt contributed to this story.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...