Facebook Starts Building Its Own Networking Gear

Jay Parikh, one of the Facebook brains working ti reinvent modern computing. Photo: Dota Imba

After designing its own computer servers, data storage gear, and electrical equipment for the massive computing facilities that run its many web services and mobile apps, Facebook has now built its own networking switches, the hardware devices that shuttle information from machine to machine.
Facebook vice president of engineering Jay Parikh unveiled this new-age networking gear at an event in San Francisco, saying that, much like Facebook’s other custom-built hardware, it would help the company expand to even greater sizes and more efficiently run its next wave of online services. In short, the gear will ease the process of both building and managing the ever expanding data-center networks that drive Facebook’s internal operation. Unlike traditional networking hardware, Facebook’s switch is modular, meaning the company can more easily swap components in and out, and it can run the company’s own customized software as well.
With traditional networking gear, Parikh said, “we were running into a lot of things that slow down. It doesn’t give us the flexibility we want–the control we want–the ability to configure things, monitor things, adjust [network] flows with things like Messenger, Instagram, Search, and all the other workloads we have. Being able to manage all that on the network is a very rich area for optimization.”
Code-named “Wedge,” Facebook’s new switch is built around the same microprocessor module at the heart of its computers servers.
The move is part of a much larger trend among the giants of the web. In an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency, Google has designed its own networking gear for years, and various startups, including Cumulus Networks and Big Switch, are working to promote a new type of gear that anyone can customize with their own software. Traditionally, networking hardware from companies such as Cisco and Juniper has been expensive and difficult to program. But led by Google, Facebook, and others, we’re now moving toward a world where building networks is far easier and far cheaper.
Code-named “Wedge,” Facebook’s new switch is built around the same microprocessor module at the heart of its computers servers. Essentially, Parikh said, the arrangement turns the switch into another server. Facebook can not only use the same hardware for servers and networking switches, it can also run something very similar to its server operating system on its networking switches. “It is not longer a switch. It’s just a server,” Parikh said. Because Facebook can share components across a broader range of hardware, this reduces costs, and because engineers can customized the OS on its switches in must the same way they can on servers, it reduces management headaches too.
Previously, Facebook has “open sourced” its server, storage hardware, and other data center designs, sharing them with the world at large, and though it has not yet released the designs of its new networking switch, Parikh indicated the company would eventually do so through the Open Compute Project, the not-for-profit it founded to further improve data-center hardware designs and reduce costs by creating a community of companies that openly trade ideas.
Facebook’s Najam Ahmad, who works on Facebook’s networking project, tells us that the company will indeed open source the designs, and though he said Facebook will stop short of open sourcing its custom networking software, now know as FBOSS, the company may share certain software libraries used to build this software. In the past, by sharing its data center work with the outside, Facebook has directly spurred others to make similar changes inside their data centers, and as the company rolls its new gear into its own computing facilities, we will surely see other do much the same. A new networking age is upon us.

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