Last Friday, in one of those cryptic, social-styled posts that social networking companies like to launch (who needs a press release?), Facebook nonchalantly announced that they are building the “Wedge,” their own top-of-rack switch.
This was a big deal that had the back channels of the networking industry chattering. And it was followed by this week’s announcement from Pluribus that it is pairing up with Arrow Electronics to fuse its Software Defined Networking (SDN) software with Arrow’s hardware as a new combination top-of-rack server-switch. Then networking veteran Extreme Networks (EXTR) announced it is joining the OpenDaylight open source project and plotting an SDN strategy that will meld OpenDaylight with its own platforms.
What do all of these announcements have in common? It’s a ratification of the concept of the “White Box,” a pairing of powerful, open, standard hardware, loaded with sophisticated SDN software to coordinate the processing of both networking and server elements at the same time.
In the Facebook post, Facebook’s engineers Yuval Bachar and Adam Simpkins describe the world of disaggregation, in which individual networking and server technology can be broken down into components that can be interchanged with commodity hardware and control software. Facebook is even working on its own Linux-based operating system for the Wedge switch, code-named “FBOSS.”
This is the white box concept in a nutshell. I think the Pluribus development is also compelling, because it shows how rapidly server and networking technologies are collapsing together. The Pluribus and Arrow product, the E-68 “server switch” includes both powerful server and switching electronics.
This is the creativity and innovation we’ve been looking for in SDN, in which customers, partners and vendors can use the power of open technologies to combine them in new ways. It’s resulting in the integration of the two discrete “industries,” data-center servers and networking. Storage, which is also being virtualized, will be next to join ranks. That’s why technology giants in many markets, such as Cisco, HP, IBM, are taking notice and carefully plotting strategies before their markets are changed forever.
These concepts ware covered in my recent “SDN Revolution” report, which lays out the landscape including a gaggle of startups. These include network OS startups such as Cumulus, Big Switch, Pluribus, and Pica8, as well as SDN network “controllers” startups such as Big Switch and open-source solutions like OpenDaylight. There’s plenty of other components — such as network analytics and orchestration tools, being developed by many players. In covering more than 20 startups, my conclusion was that big changes were coming as more than $600M in venture capital has spawned a robust disaggregated white-box food chain.
The work of the “Webscale” players and what they are doing with these technologies proves this out. Facebook describes the Wedge as an OS-agnostic top-of-rack switch that can be built with technology available from many players. It specifically names Big Switch, Cumulus, and chip and electronics players Broadcom, Intel, Mellanox, and Accton. This demonstrates the rich new world of the SDN ecosystem, in which the industry can share the innovation developed by many players and combine it, in interoperable fashion, on a rapidly developed switching platform.
SDN skeptics, stand down. We’ve proven the letters “SDN” are not just marketing, they represent key technologies in the merging of key technology infrastructure.
Dan Pitt, Executive Director of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), was talking to me about the big SDN developments this week. I asked if he was surprised at the speed at which all of this is happening. “It is a big deal,” said Pitt. “It will take a while to become the modus operandi of the network. It’s definitely headed in that direction. Nobody’s going to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Pitt points out that the SDN movement has been led by the Webscale players such as Amazon, Facebook and Google. This is why we need to watch what the large data-center players are doing to drive the industry forward.
Facebook says the new Wedge platform will unleash flexiblity, agility, and efficiency. “By controlling the programming of the switch hardware, we can implement our own forwarding software much faster.” The social-networking goliath also believes that “using a central controller, we can now find the optimal network path for data at the edges of the network. By doing so, we’ve managed to boost the utilization of edge network resources to more than 90 percent, while serving Facebook traffic without a backlog of packets.”
Ninety-percent utlilization is a huge leap, up from more typical data-center utlilization levels that can range anywhere from 5-50 percent, depending on how you measure it, according to experts. That’s the promise of SDN in a nutshell: By adding more powerful software to the mix, the network and data center can achieve more efficiency and automation.
The open data center has arrived, it includes a new creature known as the open server-switch, and the concept of SDN is driving it. Facebook doesn’t call it a white box, but that’s what it is. And they’re telling us very directly that it’s the real deal. And everybody should be listening.
The future of the SDN and white box world is outlined in “SDN Revolution: An Ecosystem,” a comprehensive, 30-page industry report that includes detailed information about more 24 startups, the position of leading incumbents networking vendors, and a ranking of the top companies. It is available now from the Rayno Report for $899.