It’s been said that two heads are better than one, and that just may be the case with Facebook’s Open Compute Project (OCP). Facebook started the OCP to build one of the most efficient computing infrastructures at the lowest possible cost. That means hardware vendors like HP, Dell and Cisco don't control the product designs. Instead, customers like Facebook and Goldman Sachs do.
When Facebook started the project 2 years ago they set out to change the server and storage industries by creating freely available hardware designs that gave customers more flexibility than those offered from the HPs and Dells of the world. Now, they aim to knock Cisco and the other top network vendors down a notch by leading a nearly identical project for switches.
At the annual Interop networking conference in Las Vegas just about a month ago Facebook announced that the Open Compute Project would design a top-of-rack switch that can boot pretty much any networking software a customer wants. According to VP of hardware design at Facebook, Frank Frankovsky, the switch would provide an alternative to vendors like Cisco, Arista Networks, and Dell's Force 10 division.
"Some of the things we've seen in off-the-shelf switch products lead me to believe that maybe the people that designed these switches have never been in a data center," Frankovsky said. "They do some really weird things with the way they mount into rack enclosures, with air flow direction. For example, we have a row of cluster switches that exhaust heat into each other. I don't know if it's just because the thermal engineer never envisioned an entire row of these things stacked in one row, or whether they just didn't know much about data center thermal dynamics."
Facebook intends to change all that though. Currently, enterprise-level switches lock you into a one-size-fits-all world of custom propriety; Cisco and iOS, Juniper and Junos and so on. Facebook wants switches to be more like servers, but just with more ports; something that can be tailored to carry out its specific duties.
"We should be able to treat a switch like a server in the rack," Frankovsky said. "We should be able to load a Linux-based operating system, and that server just happens to have a lot of I/O ports on it."
Will Cisco Survive the OCP?
In a previous article “SDN - Networking Extreme Makeover Has Cisco and Juniper Scurrying”, we noted that Cisco among others have started to incorporate OpenFlow or SDN practices into their product lines to keep their toes on what’s hot right now, but clearly it’s not their preference. Many OEM’s have been highly critical of OpenFlow calling the concept a “fantasy”, or telling customers not to incorporate OpenFlow into their networks, because they would have to re-architect and re-engineer their networks.
But, Frankovsky predicts that the hardware companies will have to bite the bullet and get on the bandwagon, or face being left in the dust as their customers leave them for a much more flexible alternative for their network hardware.
At Interop, Frankvosky followed the big boys like Cisco, VMware, and Juniper on the stage and said, “I haven't heard anyone mention open source this morning, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised." He went on to tell the crowd that Open Compute is "the greatest opportunity to the incumbent or the greatest threat to their business, depending on whether they embrace it. ... Openness always wins."
What are the benefits of OCP?
Proprietary switches, like Cisco, come loaded with their own software that allow little in the way of customization. Najam Ahmad, who runs Facebook's network engineering team and is leading the Open Compute Project's network program, believes freeing customers to use whatever software they want is the most important aspect of the open network project.
Ahmad said, "More software usually means more bugs.” With Open Compute switches, making changes to software will be much easier than with most of the ones available today. The OCP switch will come with just a pre-boot environment allowing customers to choose their own OS instead of deciding on one OS for all customers.
"We don't know what feature we may want tomorrow," Ahmad said. "If you look at Facebook culturally, we run into a problem and overnight we say it would be nice if we can solve it this way. Then a bunch of engineers get together and solve the problem, and then two days later it's running somewhere. We don't have that ability in the network stack."
When Facebook first started the OCP they were creating the designs almost entirely by themselves in-house and then releasing them to the world. This time around, it will be closer to a true open source project with collaboration from the start. Facebook has definitely sparked the interest of some big names that are already on board with their plans, including Broadcom, VMware, Big Switch Networks, Intel, Cumulus Networks and the Open Network Foundation, amongst others.
The overall goal of the Open Compute Project is to build faster, cheaper hardware for big data centers. The OCP hardware designs are free for anyone to use and modify. The hope is that OCP will completely change how all enterprise hardware is built; the same way that Linux and open source software changed the way software is created.
Considering that Cisco owns around 60% of the market share, it will be interesting to see what unfolds in the future. Buying expensive hardware routers and switches with a lot of fancy features from companies like Cisco or Juniper, may quickly be a thing of the past. There was already an OCP Engineering Summit held at MIT on May 16th to kick off development. The OCP switch has a definitely possibility of doing some damage the $22-billion-a-year Ethernet switch market that clearly belongs mostly to Cisco. It will either be an opportunity to capitalize on or a huge business threat. Which move will Cisco make? We’ll just have to wait and see.