Facebook hitches skirt, flashes 'Cisco-slaying' open network blade

OCP project heralds death of closed, bespoke gear in mega bit barns

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Facebook is leading a charge to displace traditional proprietary networking hardware and software in all of its data centers – potentially threatening the livelihood of large incumbents such as Cisco, Juniper, and Brocade in the wider market.

The Open Compute Project Networking scheme was announced by the social network at Interop in May. It involves Facebook banding together various industry participants to create a set of open specifications for networking gear that can be built, sold, and serviced by any company that likes the designs.

Today, six months after that launch, Facebook invited some journalists down to its Menlo Park headquarters to give an update on the scheme. At least 30 companies have been in touch with the web giant, and are eager to get their designs incubated in the Open Compute Specification, we're told.

At a panel discussion, representatives from Intel, Broadcom, Cumulus Networks, Mellanox and, naturally, Facebook, gave their thoughts on the state of today's networking hardware and why the industry is ripe for change.

"When you go and buy a [networking] appliance you get speeds and feeds and ports that run some protocols and [a command interface] to manage protocols – the best you can do is system integration," said Najam Ahmad, Facebook's director of technical operations. "You couldn't really effect change of the protocol."

Asking a vendor to adjust networking equipment to suit an application is a lengthy process, he explained, and so Facebook's scheme is trying to change that by opening up the underlying hardware.

The key way to do this is to sunder the links between networking hardware and software, and eliminate some of the gratuitous differentiation that makes gear from incumbents such as Brocade, Juniper, and Cisco hard to migrate between.

"These closed platforms don't provide you that visibility or control to do that... that model is breaking, that model needs to break, networking is yet another distributed system," Ahmad said.

To achieve this break with the past, one of the main technologies being considered for incubation in the OCP networking specification is called the Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) software from a startup named Cumulus Networks.

ONIE is a bootloader that lets admins easily install and run whatever software they want on Ethernet switches. ONIE can sit between the switch chips, and higher-level systems such as a network operating system, whether that software is from a traditional vendor like Cisco or uses something else, such as Cumulus's own tech.

"You can run anything on this," says Cumulus Networks's chief J R Rivers. "I think a lot of the hardware suppliers here will attest to the fact a different ecosystem could exist. For the market to really open up you have to be able to mix and match operating systems. Letting the customer have choices gives healthy incumbents."

On that choice – Broadcom, Intel, and Mellanox have each developed specifications of switch electronics that could be included in the project.

More providers means lower prices, and switchable software and open components should cut the time it takes to deal with networking bugs, Ahmad said. He hopes to have 100 per cent of Facebook's networking gear running on OCP hardware in time, though admitted that as of yet nothing is in production.

Insieme in the membrane

This diversity of hardware suppliers, along with a goal of opening up the technology layer, stands in stark opposition to networking giant Cisco. Just last week Cisco gave details on its own response to the nascent software-defined networking world, by combining its switch hardware with its Insieme-powered software.

Cisco said that by designing the two together, it would be able to give customers greater performance and at a lower cost than other more open models. This is an approach also favored by Oracle's hardware division, whose revenues have been shrinking for many recent quarters.

"Maybe we are doing hardware-defined networking... but if I can put that same box with better performance and better programmability in your data center, cheaper than a white box out of Taiwan, do you care?" asked Insieme's Joe Onisick at the time.

Cisco's gear won't be out till late-2014, so we can't assess prices for now. But the types of arguments the company and other incumbents are putting forward are going to only get louder as Facebook's OCP project trundles towards production.

Cisco's proprietary application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) approach could also cope better with the types of demands placed on data centers by upcoming 40GbE networks, the company said. But Cisco's anti-open arguments may not be entirely based on technical realities, former Cisco employee Rivers said.

"Any company whose business is solely networking, they typically don't make money on huge sexy hard problems, they make it on meat of the market problems," Rivers said. "They do it by creating a real or perceived lock-in to their technology. It might be a certification program. They do that because more often than not they have shareholders they are beholden to."

Facebook is also skeptical about Cisco's arguments that networking software needs to be tightly coupled to a Cisco-designed ASIC on a Cisco-designed circuit board to get greater performance.

"I don't buy that," Ahmad told us. "In data center world I don't see any argument that you need any special thing. There is an advantage in helping the chipset ecosystem to build the next one that meets the needs, so we're working with the usual players – Broadcom, Intel, Marvell... I don't see why we would need to do a custom ASIC."

There could also be another reason why Facebook, and others, seem keen on a more open type of cheap-and-cheerful switch: humankind's propensity to meddle.

"People have underestimated how curious humans are," says Facebook's brilliantly named hardware supply chief Frank Frankovsky. People are saying "my environment is a little different, stop trying to shove this square peg in round whole," he said.

The modularity and choice of suppliers afforded by the OCP scheme should make it easier for people to rightsize their switch, while still having control over it, he said. "Custom is really hard for an established company," Frankovsky said. ®

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