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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Opening Up Networking’s Black Box

The Open Compute Project, a Facebook-led effort to remake the computer servers and data storage of the biggest computing centers, is broadening its aims to include networking as well.

“There is really nothing in the data center that should be immune from the positive influence of open source,” said Frank Frankovsky, the vice president for hardware design and supply chain at Facebook and chairman of Open Compute. While there have been other efforts to open source large scale computer networking, he noted, “so far the actual hardware has not been affected.”

Open source generally refers to collaborative technology efforts where engineers and programmers share their work in an effort to reduce costs and improve technology. Linux software is perhaps the best-known example of an open-source effort.

Networking, on the other hand, is one of the most arcane and closed parts of large-scale computing. But in recent years it has been affected by an increase in the number of off-the-shelf components that can be used, as well as by systems that run largely on software, not hardware.

Still, the cheap servers and storage devices in data centers are still hooked up to expensive “black boxes” of networking and that could continue for years. Open Compute will take a small step first with the creation of an open rack switch. That’s a key feature, because other data center equipment plugs into it, but it’s not yet the big management networking devices that power overall activity.

But it’s a start.

“We want to create a bare metal-type switch, that is agnostic about what kind of operating system you are running and works off any storage media,” said Najam Ahmad, who runs the network engineering team at Facebook and is leading the networking project at Open Compute. “The move is there to lead the network to a more software-defined technology.”

Facebook runs an enormous amount of computing infrastructure, so it has an interest in cheaper, better-performing equipment that open source can provide. It also may be interested in creating issues for Google, which has a highly proprietary view of its own network.

Google has long viewed its high-performing data centers as a competitive advantage. By turning to open source, Facebook is enlisting lots of engineers to create products it hopes will perform even better.

The turn to open-source networking also could be a headache for Cisco Systems, long the leader in network gear. However, Cisco isn’t standing by and has lately been part of open source projects like OpenDaylight, which is working on networking software.

OpenDaylight is one of the early groups signed up to participate in Open Compute’s hardware-focused effort. Others include the Open Networking Foundation, Broadcom, Intel, Cumulus Networks, VMware, Netronome and Big Switch Networks, a software-led networking company.

Besides Facebook, Open Compute has on its board representatives from Intel, Rackspace, Arista Networks, and Goldman Sachs. Some 50 other companies and organizations are members of the project, and thousands of people are believed to be contributing.