Facebook super-sizes its open networking switch

The '6-pack' switch design expands on Facebook's Wedge, and both are due to be released through OCP

network switches ethernet cables
Credit: Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis/Wikipedia

Facebook is taking its crusade for open networking to a broader battlefield, using its 16-port "Wedge" switch design as the basis of a new modular platform that can link racks of servers across a data center.

The social networking juggernaut doesn't intend to become a data networking vendor. It designs switches for its own needs and then open-sources its hardware designs so others can use them. In time, other companies could turn Facebook switch designs into products for sale, but Facebook won't be directly involved, said Matt Corddry, director of hardware engineering at Facebook.

Yet what the company is doing could eventually have a big impact on IT. Corddry compared the open hardware designs to Linux, the free, open-source operating system that started out being used by big "scaled computing" companies similar to Facebook and in time became the standard OS for enterprise servers. Facebook hopes the work it's putting into open networking hardware will help to create a broad ecosystem of suppliers and developers.

"The application for this type of technology, over time, will broaden considerably," Corddry said. "We're doing a lot of the heavy lifting." As with open-source computing, open networking should give users more visibility and control, he said.

Facebook plans to offer the hardware designs through the Open Compute Project (OCP), an organization it founded in 2011. The company uses its own software for the switches it makes for itself, but the expectation is for others to develop their own software.

Facebook's first switch, code-named Wedge, was announced last June. It's a 1U design with 16 ports of 40-Gigabit Ethernet and is designed to sit at the top of a rack of servers, networking those systems to each other. The new design, code-named "6-pack," is 6U deep and contains eight interchangeable interface cards. It can be configured with as many as 128 40-Gigabit ports.

The 6-pack is designed to connect racks of switches together as the core of a modular data-center design that debuted in the company's new Altoona, Iowa, data center in November and will be deployed at its other facilities over time. But the 6-pack is not limited to the current role or configurations Facebook is using. It's an architecture that will let Facebook assemble any size switch using common building blocks, and others will be able to extend the design into different configurations to suit their needs.

A key feature of the 6-pack is its backplane, the element that links the interface modules to each other so traffic can flow from one port to another inside the switch. Instead of a proprietary interface, the backplane uses standard Ethernet, though it carries packets across a printed circuit board instead of on cables or fibers. Using Ethernet will make it easier for third parties to design their own port modules, Corddry said. The backplane is ready for 100-Gigabit Ethernet to meet higher throughput demands in the future, he said.

Both the Wedge and the 6-pack are being tested with production traffic in Facebook data centers. The company had hoped to release the Wedge through OCP by the end of last year. It's still verifying the technology and plans to release it in the near future, Corddry said. The 6-pack is expected to be released within a matter of months.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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