Facebook Unveils Homegrown Networking Hardware

The social network's "6-pack" module is open, scalable and built from off-the-shelf parts, and will challenge Cisco, Juniper and other switch vendors.

Facebook switch

Facebook for several years has led the charge to rethink how data center resources are designed, going so far as launching the Open Compute Project in 2011 to encourage others to develop open-source models for designing servers, storage appliances and networking gear.

Now the social networking company, which runs massive data centers that process and store the huge amounts of data generated by its 1 billion members and its own internal operations, is unveiling a new homegrown networking module to link the hundreds of thousands of servers that populate their data centers, officials said.

The networking device, which Facebook engineers call the "6-pack" platform, leverages the top-of-rack switch—the "Wedge"—that the company designed and debuted in June 2014, along with the Linux-based operating system the company created for the Wedge, codenamed "FBoss." The 6-pack is built with off-the-shelf technologies, and as with other data center devices developed by Facebook, is designed to enable Facebook to efficiently, cost-effectively and rapidly move data loads that are significantly larger than most other companies currently have to deal with.

It's also an open design that is customizable and that can be leveraged by other organizations that run large data centers and need to manage huge amounts of data, presenting another challenge to traditional networking switch vendors likes Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Arista Networks and Extreme Networks. Facebook engineers, who have been wrestling with ways to become faster and more efficient over the years during the company's rapid growth, have turned away from many of the systems offered by the major tech vendors and instead have developed designs in-house that fit their needs.

"As Facebook's infrastructure has scaled, we've frequently run up against the limits of traditional networking technologies, which tend to be too closed, too monolithic, and too iterative for the scale at which we operate and the pace at which we move," Facebook Yuval Bachar wrote in a post about the 6-pack on the company blog. "Over the last few years we've been building our own network, breaking down traditional network components and rebuilding them into modular disaggregated systems that provide us with the flexibility, efficiency, and scale we need."

On the networking side, that initially led to the Wedge, a 1U (1.75-inch) switch that offered 16 ports of 40 Gigabit Ethernet. The 6-pack is a 6U (10.6-inch) design that can hold eight interface cards and includes 12 independent switching elements, with each element offering speeds of up to 1.28Tb/s. It can offer as many as 128 40GbE ports.

"Each element runs its own operating system on the local server and is completely independent, from the switching aspects to the low-level board control and cooling system," Bachar wrote. "This means we can modify any part of the system with no system-level impact, software or hardware. We created a unique dual backplane solution that enabled us to create a non-blocking topology."