Open Compute Project Challenges Network Status Quo

This week the Open Compute Project, which applies open source principles to hardware design, hosted a conference call to highlight network hardware and software contributions from multiple participants, including Broadcom, Intel, Cumulus Networks and Mellanox.

Launched in 2011 by Facebook and now a non-profit foundation, Open Compute initially focused its efforts around data center components such as racks and servers. It expanded its charter to cover the network in May 2013. The expansion was announced at Interop Las Vegas by Frank Frankovsy, chair and president of the OCP Foundation.

In his opening remarks at this week’s conference call, Frankovsky, who is also VP of hardware design and supply chain operations at Facebook,  said “I wasn’t sure how the networking world would react to bringing open-source goodness to networking.” He was encouraged by the fact that the first engineering workshop for open networking attracted over 100 participants.

One participant is Broadcom, which submitted a design specification for spine and leaf switches for the data center. The specification is based on Broadcom’s Trident II silicon, which is already used in brand-name hardware from companies such as Arista and Cisco, including Cisco’s newly announced Nexus 9000 switches.

Broadcom’s initial design is a 10/40GbE top-of-rack switch. “We have a spec and working hardware that we’ve provided to a few operators,” said Sujal Das, Broadcom’s director of marketing. “We believe the spec will improve and enable data center operators and telco service providers to have more choice in how they procure switching equipment.”

Mellanox and Intel also touted their proposals to OCP. Mellanox announced that it is contributing its SwitchX-2 ToR switch to the project. SwitchX-2 offers 48 10GbE and 12 40GbE ports. Meanwhile, Intel is also offering a 10/40GbE switch spec. While the specification doesn’t require Intel compenents, the company says production versions of the switch (using Intel chips) are available from white-box manufacturers such as Quanta.

OCP isn’t just about hardware; the project also wants to advance open source network software. To that end, startup Cumulus Networks discussed its own contribution to the project, Open Network Install Environment (ONIE). Cumulus makes a Linux-based network operating system. ONIE, which Cumulus has already made available as an open source package, simplifies the installation of any network switch OS on to “bare metal” hardware.

The separation of network hardware and the network operating system gives customers more choice by allowing them to mix and match the hardware and software that’s the best fit for their environment.

“Network companies make money on repacking hardware that doesn’t have to cost as much as it does,” said J.R. Rivers, co-founder and CEO of Cumulus, during the conference call. “There’s not a lot of custom silicon required to build out data centers any more. Customers win, and incumbent network companies lose.”

Najam Ahmad, director of technical operations at Facebook also attended the conference call. He noted that Facebook is experimenting in its labs with booting different software onto network hardware, though the company hasn’t tried it in production yet.

“The key point is we can achieve hardware abstraction, and run any hardware on any software,” said Ahmad during the call. “We want to have an investment in software that can be used on different sets of hardware. I’d like Facebook to get one hundred percent there.”

The Open Compute Project is one facet of an evolving hardware market. The rise of high-performance merchant silicon from companies such as Broadcom and the emergence of an ecosystem of white-box manufacturers and network OS vendors means customers can buy lower-cost equipment without much sacrifice in overall performance.

However, it’s highly unlikely that enterprises are going to abandon brand-name network gear in droves. Massive Web-scale companies such as Facebook have the in-house resources to assemble a network out of disparate hardware and software components, and the operational capability to make them work together. These companies are the exception rather than the rule, however. A majority of organizations aren’t ready, or even necessarily inclined, to build bespoke networks out of mix-and-match parts.

That said, efforts such as Open Compute can spur innovation–and bring price pressure–that will be felt in the market at large. Bob McCouch, who blogs at Herding Packets, notes in his analysis of Cisco’s new Nexus 9000 family that “Cisco has clearly recognized the need to price aggressively and be ready for future growth.”