Open Compute Project's next target: The network

Facebook, Intel, Broadcom, VMware, and company put the commoditization of switching hardware on the agenda

Looks like creating an openly licensable server rack design was just the beginning for the Open Compute Project, the folks who jiggered Facebook's custom data center layout and proceeded to give it to the rest of the world.

Now the OCP's setting its sights on creating what it describes as "an open, OS-agnostic top-of-rack switch."

But wait, you ask -- isn't that what others have already been doing in this space for years via SDNs and the like? What's the real special sauce here?

Answer: A switch that doesn't have a single proprietary element in it -- including the OS.

OCP's basic idea is to create a network switch that is more like a generic server box than a closed appliance. Instead of running a vendor-specific network OS (Cisco's IOS, for example), one could load it with any software one pleased, whether provided by a third party or developed in-house. It stands to reason that one of the folks in OCP's constellation of partners would also create an OS to give the switch something to do. My guess is that would be provided by OCP partner Big Switch Networks, as it already has the pieces for such a thing in place. (Other partners that could potentially create the switch include Intel, Broadcom, VMware, and Cumulus Networks.)

While OCP started with a new data center design, it has diversified a great deal in the two years since it was founded. The project not only published specs for power systems and rack designs, but for motherboards and storage gear as well. Networking gear would just be the next logical step, especially for a company with Facebook's aggressive growth, where even top-of-the-line off-the-shelf hardware wouldn't cut it anymore.

A blog post by Frank Frankovsky, chairman and president of the OCP, put it this way: "It's our hope that an open, disaggregated switch will enable a faster pace of innovation in the development of networking hardware; help software-defined networking continue to evolve and flourish; and ultimately provide consumers of these technologies with the freedom they need to build infrastructures that are flexible, scalable, and efficient across the entire stack."

Nobody, not even Frankovsky, really knows what OCP's switch design will be like yet. That's why the OCP switch design is one item on the agenda at the first OCP Engineering Summit at MIT, being held on May 16.

Many existing bits of networking gear let you run the software of your choice on it. The Buffalo-brand router attached to the network for the very computer I'm typing this on, for instance, uses the open source DD-WRT firmware (albeit in a Buffalo-branded implementation). But the hardware design for the router itself is Buffalo's intellectual property. OCP's switch designs would be open reference designs that could be implemented by anyone -- even Facebook's competition.

In a previous era, this would have been seen as insanity. Why create something so useful, only to give it away? One reason would be to get Cisco's hand out of your pocket. But the real innovation planned around this hardware may not be in the hardware itself, but the services to be delivered through it. That's not something anyone could buy off the shelf anyway.

This story, "Open Compute Project's next target: The network," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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