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Facebook plans globe-spanning hardware deployment

Social network gets edgy with its infrastructure

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Facebook plans to deploy sophisticated gear at the very edge of its network to cut the time it takes for denizens of the social network to interact with the site.

The plans – which are still in a very early stage – were revealed to The Register by Facebook at a briefing at Interop in Las Vegas this week. They will see the social network attempt to distribute some software and hardware to the edge of its network so that it can get information to users quicker.

This is a strategy also employed by global procrastination enabler Netflix via the video giant's OpenConnect content delivery network. OpenConnect has seen Netflix eschew traditional CDN providers like Akamai and Level3 and instead build its own software and low-cost hardware.

Now Facebook is contemplating something that takes influence from Netflix's approach and adds some bells and whistles on top.

"Think about a certain element of your network sitting at the aggregation point in a global network and what does that look like – we're starting to build that technology and it's early to even think about what the packaging looks like," Facebook's networking chief Najam Ahmad told The Register.

Though Facebook had disclosed plans in June 2012 to put servers into ISP data centers, the company now contemplates putting some local processing and networking capability in the gear as well, and may even incorporate some advanced networking capabilities.

The Facebook system should involve a content distribution network, some local processing capability for interacting with users of the social network, and some caching, Ahmad confirmed to us.

"If you think about Netflix, in some sense it's relatively easier because they're streaming content and not terminating end users and having compute and all sorts stuff like that," he said. "So that is one specific model we're looking at – we're trying to get the software pieces done right first and then thinking about the hardware packaging and all that and what that might look like."

Facebook's unnamed system is no doubt inspired by its own previous work on commodity hardware, which has seen the massive data center operator try to strip-down servers, storage and – as of this week – networking, in its quest to cut its dependence on large IT vendors.

By designing its own gear and publishing the designs to the community through the Open Compute Project, Facebook has been able to move away from the model of buying general purpose hardware from OEMs like HP, Dell and IBM, and can instead use IT infrastructure designed by Facebook and built by third-party original device manufacturers like Wiwynn, Quanta, and their ilk.

Though Facebook's plans for an edge network presence take influence from the appliance-model of integrated software, storage, and networking, the company has no immediate plans to form an OCP project based around that technology.

"We've always been really sensitive within Open Compute about not being redundant with other efforts that are going pretty well, and honestly I would give the vendor community great credit for defining and delivering these really nice vertically integrated solutions," Facebook's hardware and supply-chain king Frank Frankovsky told us. "Any efforts Open Compute would have there would be completely redundant and probably not as successful as the vendor community."

But just as Netflix has published the designs for OpenConnect to the community, there is a chance Facebook could do the same. Still, it's going to be a substantial amount of time before the company even gets to the point where it can start interacting with the wider Open Compute Project community, we understand. ®

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