Facebook's 'Wedge' network switch will soon be on sale to all

The top-of-rack switch will go on sale from Accton in the first half

A network switch that Facebook designed for its own data centers will soon be on sale from Taiwanese manufacturer Accton Technologies, the latest sign of progress from the community hardware effort known as the Open Compute Project.

Facebook set up the OCP about four years ago as a way for data center operators to collaborate on new hardware designs that they can then ask low-cost manufacturers to produce. Part of the goal is to get cheaper, more standardized hardware than what's normally supplied by top-tier vendors like Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell.

Facebook is already using the top-of-rack switch, known as Wedge, in its own data centers, and it will be available to others in the first half from Accton and its OEM partners, said Jay Parikh, head of Facebook's infrastructure division. Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks will provide software for it, and Facebook has put some of its own network software on Github for companies that want to "roll their own."

The company won't make money from the switch, and it's not getting into the hardware business. By making the specification open, it hopes other OCP members will make improvements it can benefit from, Parikh said. It's basically an open source model for hardware.

Facebook also designed a new server, code-named Yosemite, that it will also submit to OCP. The standard two-socket servers widely used in data centers create bottlenecks for some of its applications, Parikh said, so it worked with Intel to design Yosemite, a new system that's made up of four single-socket servers.

The social network is using a new system-on-chip from Intel, and it created a management platform that's server-card agnostic, so that cards can be sourced from multiple vendors. Up to 192 of the processors can fit into one computer rack, although the main benefit is the flexibility of the design.

Facebook has saved US$2 billion over the past three years from using OCP designs, Parikh said. He wouldn't break that number down, but said the savings are in capital costs across its infrastructure.

One of the OCP's goals is to do away with "gratuitous differentiation" -- add-on features from vendors that not all customers need but everyone has to pay for because they're bundled with products. Those variations don't only make products more expensive, they can also make it complex to manage multi-vendor environments.

OCP is challenging that model. So far it's been most helpful to big service providers, like Facebook and Microsoft and financial institutions like Bank of America -- companies with the scale and the expertise to deal directly with low-cost Taiwanese manufacturers.

But there are signs that is changing. HP, unwilling to lose business to the white box makers, is instead working with them. It announced a new line of servers Tuesday that will be manufactured by Foxconn and are based on the Open CloudServer specification Microsoft submitted to the OCP last year.

HP's well known brand and worldwide support offering could encourage other enterprises to adopt the systems -- and Microsoft hopes they will. It uses the Open CloudServer to run its Azure computing service, and if customers use the same hardware as Microsoft in their own data centers, it makes it easier to offer them hybrid, private-public cloud services.

Cisco and Juniper were among the other new OCP members announced Tuesday, suggesting they recognized that changes in the industry are afoot, though it's not clear yet what their involvement with OCP will be.

Several other vendors made OCP announcements Tuesday. Microsoft submitted the specifications for a system that uses lithium-ion batteries to provide backup power for servers, which it says will be five times less costly than using a traditional UPS (uninteruptible power supply). Other vendors on the show floor included AppliedMicro, Cavium, Panasonic, Mellanox and Penguin Computing.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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