One of the more interesting keynotes at Interop cam from Frank Frankovsky, the guy who is not only in charge of Facebook‘s infrastructure, but also heads up the Open Compute Project, an initiative that was originally started by Facebook but now has real cross-party steam behind it. The Open Compute Project seeks to improve every aspect of the way modern data centers are built and run, and share those learnings back to the world at large – in doing so they could quite possibly provide massive economic and environmental benefits to the world, while shaking the cozy and formerly highly protected world of data the center.

While the OCP has made great inroads at opening up many parts of the data center operation, one area they’ve seen little impact is the world of networking. This is largely due to the fact that networking disruption lags behind other parts of the datacenter. While commodity hardware and open source software for compute is a well accepted and recognized approach, the same for networking is unheard of in the public arena. This despite the fact that many webscale operators design their own networking gear – in particular Google is rumored to do so.

Networking kit accessible to the general populace on the other hand tends to be highly proprietary hardware/software combinations that give customers very little flexibility. Traditional vendors like the fact that new technologies require updating both hardware and embedded software – awesome for their profit margins, but wasteful and expensive for customers. Which is where the Open Compute Project’s announcement comes in. The aim is to product an operating system agnostic, open source switch that, in the words of Frankovsky “can be treated just like a bare-metal server when it comes on the network”. The reference for the switch would create a piece of hardware onto which customers can load their own operating systems – in much the same way as customers load OpenStack onto standard servers. In doing so the initiative opens up the opportunity for organizations to take advantage of commodity hardware directly from OEM providers – and neatly sidestep the network giants in the process.

If this initiative gains traction, it raises some real concerns for the traditional networking companies – Big Switch Networks and VMware have put their names to the initiative but so to has Cumulus Networks, a stealth company that was founded by JR Rivers, a long time Cisco veteran and a former Google networking engineer. Google doesn’t talk about it’s forays into a new type of networking device but if the rumors are true, then Rivers was likely involved in taking commodity hardware and rolling it out within Google – taking that experience and applying it at a startup raises some interesting prospects. The fact that Cumulus has joined the OCP initiative raises them even more. Anyway – the initiative looks to get going immediately There is an OCP meeting at MIT next week and word is a number of companies with an interest in disrupting the networking status quo will be there.

Of course we already have OpenFlow, a protocol that allows users to manage their hardware. But this initiative is going further and covering any operating system that may be uses. In terms of how it will work, the projects aims to create a switch that has within it a “boot loader” that will let software be installed onto the device, across the network. And therein lies the opportunity for another open source software play – currently networking OSes are proprietary to specific vendors – Cisco, Juniper and Arista – imagine a networking OS built on top of Linux for example – it’s a prospect that has these other vendors quivering in their boots.

Change is something that has been lacking in the networking world – it looks like very soon it will be the new normal

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • Google turned to Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs)like Cumulus and Pica8 to build their G-scale network switches that are controlled using OpenFlow. Pica8 switches can operate either in Layer-2/Layer-3 mode or Open vSwitch mode. Anyone can buy these switches from Pica8. The incumbent switch vendors, like Cisco and IBM, are trying to freeze the market with their OpenDaylight ploy. Don’t be fooled. The days of running expensive branded switches using a proprietary OS are coming to an end.

  • Ben, how do you see the OCP initiative comparing or contrasting with OpenWRT?

  • Tim, neither Cumulus Networks nor Pica8 are ODMs. Cumulus Networks is a software company while Pica8 sells integrated systems based on ODM hardware from Quanta.

    • @reza: Thanks for pointing that out…Cumulus Networks (J.R. Rivers) and Pica8 (James Liao) function more like brokers and “arms dealers” for ODMs like Quanta. Pica8 is a spin-off from Quanta, which was one company that built switches Google used to create their G-scale network according to J.R. Rivers.

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