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Facebook unveils open-source networking switch. Sucker punches Cisco?

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In its ongoing quest to expand infrastructure to support the handling and delivery of massive amounts of data in its social network, Facebook announced that it has created its own networking switch and the software to go with it, and makes it available to public.

Facebook's own networking hardware, called Wedge, veers significantly away from the black box operations of networking companies such as Cisco, Juniper and Hewlett-Packard, which all enjoy control of a significant portion of the market. The open-source switch comes embedded with an Intel microserver, making it function like a combined switch and server, while its accompanying Linux-based FBOSS operating system is designed to manage the hardware and keep track of its performance. This, Facebook hopes, will make work easier for network engineers.

"We've done this for racks, for the compute part of it, for storage and for other parts of infrastructure but there is this other lingering part, the network," says Jay Parikh, Facebook vice president of infrastructure engineering at the GigaOM Structure conference Wednesday, where Facebook first introduced Wedge. "We were running into just a lot of things that slow us down."

Wedge is designed to run on Group Hug microprocessor boards, which will allow any type of chip to run FBOSS and allow the switch to run alongside other open-source or commercial networking products. The switch is capable of delivering 40 GB of data per second, which is what most high-end network switches can currently offer. Facebook vice president of network engineering Najam Ahmad, however, says that his team is working on increasing capacities to 100 Gbps in the near future.

Facebook has made its design available for wedge through its Open Compute Project, which has the goal of making available designs for racks, servers, storage boxes and other computing products by using a process called disaggregation or the breaking down of hardware and software into their core components.

The trend of shifting from big-name networking systems to low-cost networking boxes has endangered business for the industry's biggest players, which are already updating their strategies and looking into how they can work with open-source networking systems to a cater to a growing number of businesses looking for cheaper storage and servers. Ahmad noted that Dell made the big switch when it announced that it will be offering a networking system running on commercial semiconductors and an open-source platform developed by Cumulus Networks.

Other companies are also looking at how they can address their customers' changing needs. Cisco, which has been seeing customers opt for inexpensive software-defined networks and cheap hardware in place of its pricey switches and routers, says open-source switches are only for a small segment of the market but will continue to deliver products to keep clients happy.

"While the open-source switch approach is definitely not for everyone, I want to be very clear that we know this segment of the market (largest Internet players) very well, and we intend to retain and grow these customers by addressing their needs," says David McCulloch, spokesperson for Cisco. 

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