Facebook's introduction of a design for building a scalable network switch using a common set of building blocks is the social media company's latest move toward flipping the source of innovation from vendors to technology users.
Facebook unveiled its switch platform, called 6-pack, Feb. 11. Unlike proprietary switches, the technology is open, modular and not dependent on specific hardware.
"We hope this is a platform that the entire industry can build on," the company said in a blog.
6-pack is in production testing with Facebook's previously announced switching technologies. They include the bare-metal switching hardware, called Wedge, and a Linux-based operating system called FBOSS.
Like its other technologies, Facebook plans to submit 6-pack to the Open Compute Project, the initiative started by the social network in 2011 to share open server and data center designs with the general IT industry.
Overkill for most enterprises
Facebook, Google, Amazon and other operators of massive data centers have rattled the computer hardware industry by designing servers and networking gear to meet their specifications, and thus bypass traditional manufacturers.
While such work can be innovative, some analysts view it as applicable only to the several hundred global companies with similar size data centers and IT budgets. Facebook's technology supports 1.4 billion users.
"Generally, it's good to demonstrate what's possible, but it's very niche in terms of its applicability," Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa said about such efforts as 6-pack and Wedge. "Having them open source the design is significant and necessary, but greatly insufficient to move the market."
Yet a company the size of Facebook releasing details on its cutting-edge data center may spur analysts and consultants to get networking professionals within conservative enterprises to think outside the box.
"Enterprises get stuck in a rut and sometimes they won't look outside the market leader," Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness said.
Facebook's work is useful as a catalyst to get enterprises thinking differently. "It doesn't mean you have to do it, but you can challenge yourself," Kindness said.
And hardware makers have taken note of Internet giants designing their own equipment. Hewlett-Packard and Dell, for example, have started selling some of their servers and switch platforms without their proprietary software, and Cisco Chief Executive John Chambers has said the trend has helped push his company toward more software innovation.
Facebook introduced in November a network architecture comprised of modular components. Like Lego pieces, the components are part of the whole system, but each can be replaced or upgraded independently, so the social media company can launch services and increase network capacity faster.
The design is meant to separate the hardware and software layers of the network stack to get more visibility into system operations, automate provisioning of services, and gain greater overall control.
6-pack core technology
6-pack, which Facebook calls the "core" of its network fabric, uses Wedge as a basic building block. It is a full mesh non-blocking, two-stage switch that includes six pairs of 12 switching elements, thus the name 6-pack.
Each element can switch 1.28 Tbps, runs its own operating system on the local server, and is completely independent, Facebook said. The design lets the company modify any part of the system with no system-level impact to software or hardware. The elements, populated by 32 40 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports, can be configured in two ways, depending on whether they are used for aggregation purposes.
Each switching element contains a local control plane on a micro-server that communicates with a centralized controller. The elements use the same sheet metal shell, backplane and power supply, so they can be easily replaced or added, Facebook said.
Enterprises prefer prebuilt technology
Despite the benefits Facebook reaps from its development efforts, most enterprises prefer doing business with traditional suppliers, rather than cobbling together their own software and hardware based on specifications from an organization like the Open Compute Project, Skorupa said.
"Unless it's widely available from someone who can actually build it, ship it, sell it and support it, it's tough to get [the technology] into the enterprise," he said.
Most organizations do not have data centers as large as Facebook's, so a modular design isn't necessary. In addition, because of intense competition, vendors selling prebuilt systems are willing to negotiate pricing.
"The need for modular switches is just a lot less," Skorupa said. "You have to get into very, very big scale before that starts to make sense."
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