Open Compute Reports Progress on Open Network Switch

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Najam Ahmad, director of technical operations at Facebook, speaks at an Open Compute Project networking news announcement at Facebook headquarters. (Photo: Jordan Novet)

MENLO PARK, Calif. - The Open Compute network switch is moving closer to reality. Broadcom, Intel and Mellanox have each submitted specifications for a top-of-rack switch to the Open Compute Project, and were on hand at Facebook headquarters Monday to promote their contributions to the open-source hardware initiative.

Broadcom introduced and built a switch based on the Trident II chip architecture, while Mellanox put forward its SwitchX-2 switch, and Intel offered a specification for a switch that Quanta and Accton have been building. The three switches are now being tested in Facebook’s labs.

Hardware vendors such as Hyve have released designs to meet the server needs of the Open Compute Project. Now the arrival of an webscale-approved open-source switch is just around the corner, six months after the Open Compute Project announced plans to come up with such a switch.

But contributions to the project now go beyond hardware. Cumulus Networks, which delivers a Linux networking operating system, is providing the Open Network Install Environment for the Open Compute Project. The idea is to be able to run different operating systems on networking hardware, said JR Rivers, CEO and a co-founder of Cumulus.

And that is, in fact, a use case Facebook would like to implement, said Najam Ahmad, director of technical operations at Facebook. Such capability would enable Facebook to let a switch sometimes run, say, OpenFlow-based vSwitches.

“There is that interest from a lot of users to be able to write software to affect changes on the networks, and these closed platforms don’t provide enough visibility and control to be able to do that,” Ahmad said. “The desire from a lot of the user base to be able to use software to do things is growing rapidly.”

Fortunately for Ahmad, the Open Compute Project has more than 30 contributions to consider for networking, and among them are “SDN-type solutions,” he said, referring to software-defined networking.

In the coming weeks, Open Compute Project leaders will choose one or two of the specifications from the hardware vendors to be officially included in the Open Compute Project. Then Open Compute people want to run demonstrations with the switches and talk about the work at the Open Compute Summit in San Jose in January.

The switches could be deployed first at Facebook’s data center in Altoona, Iowa, in late 2014 or early 2015, a Facebook spokesman said.

For Ahmad, the switches are more than a business decision. They’re part of an effort to rethink networking.

“We talk about hardware, and we talk about being able to build stuff cheaper,” Ahmad said. “The real gain is in the operations of things — transparency being the keyword, visibility, and being able to do something when you see something. Transparency starts with that visibility. (If you) have visibility and can’t do anything about it, it’s even more frustrating to me. This project is the start of something really big, where a few years from now networks will be built very differently.”

About the Author

Jordan Novet is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He has written for newspapers and magazines and most recently covered cloud computing and big data at GigaOM.

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